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It's Nip and Tuck to Get Menagerie in Shape

Charles Hillinger's America

December 23, 1990|CHARLES HILLINGER

PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — The elephant lost its trunk. The 16-foot-tall giraffe lost its head.

Both injuries were the result of a 1954 hurricane that roared through this Rhode Island town. But don't worry: The elephant and giraffe recovered and are doing just fine. Unlike most other creatures, these animals can grow back any missing parts.

They are members of the menagerie here at Green Animals, the oldest topiary garden in America.

Topiary is the art of shaping shrubs and trees into geometric forms, ornamental designs, animals, birds, even humans.

Green Animals, a seven-acre estate overlooking Narragansett Bay in Portsmouth, has 80 pieces of topiary scattered among the snapdragons, dusty millers, verbenas, marigolds, nasturtiums, zinnias, and other flowers and ornamental grasses.

Here at Green Animals, gardeners have clipped, trimmed and pruned shrubs and trees into such shapes as tea cups, spirals, gumdrops, flower baskets, a policeman, a man on a horse, a bird bath, a trophy cup, a sail boat, a pineapple, an obelisk and an oversized, overstuffed chair.

From the animal world, gardeners have created dogs, peacocks, reindeer, a boar, a donkey, a camel, a hen, a lion, an ostrich, a rooster, a swan, a unicorn, an alligator, a pig, the elephant, the giraffe and a big, round teddy bear.

Green Animals was started in 1872 by the industrialist Thomas Brayton. His chief gardener from 1905 to 1945 was Joseph Carreiro, who was succeeded by his son-in-law, George Mendonca, who ran the gardens until 1985, when Ernie Wasson took over.

Wasson, 40, is a transplanted Californian who received his degree in horticulture from Cal State Humboldt.

"The biggest and best topiary gardens in America are here; Longwood Gardens, Pa.; Ladew Gardens, Md.; Disneyland, and Disney World," said Wasson, a former Longwood Gardens horticulturist.

When Thomas Brayton died in 1939, his daughter, Alice Brayton, also a horticulturist, inherited the gardens. She owned and operated Green Animals until her death at age 94 in 1972. She left the gardens to the Preservation Society of Newport County, R.I., the organization that owns many of the famous old mansions of Newport.

"Topiary gardens can be traced . . . to ancient Rome. Topiarius in Latin means garden . Pliny the Younger, who lived from 62 to 110 AD, had a famous topiary garden," Wasson said.

"France has many topiary gardens. So does Italy, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. There's a cemetery in the Andes mountains of Ecuador that has topiary figures that are mind-boggling. A topiary garden in Thailand has a herd of elephants."

But England remains the mecca of topiary gardens. "Almost every garden in England has topiary," said Wasson, who recently returned from a visit to 40 topiary gardens in England and Scotland, including one that is 300 years old. In Great Britain, topiary gardeners are known as tree barbers.

Walking through Green Animals with his trimmer in hand, Wasson stopped to prune Spot the dog and again to snip away at the ostrich. A self-described perfectionist, Wasson often visits zoos to study animals in order to achieve realistic shapes for his garden creations.

All the figures here at Green Animals are crafted from growing California privet, yew and boxwood.

"Slow-growing shrubbery is, of course, preferred," said Wasson with a grin.

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