EVER SINCE EVE discovered apples, gardeners have tinkered with plants. We force them to grow smaller than their standard size and push them into unusual shapes. We also delight in twisting and pinning them against vertical surfaces.
Espalier (pronounced es- PAL-yer or es-PAL-yay) is the ancient garden practice of forcing a tree, shrub or vine to grow flat against a wall, fence or trellis. Because this practice willfully controls a plant’s size and shape, gardeners sometimes liken espalier to an exaggerated form of bonsai or topiary. However, a plant that is attached to a wall is not portable and eventually becomes part of the overall design.
The art of espalier has agricultural roots. Ancient Romans espaliered fruit crops, especially apple trees, to increase yields and make harvesting easier. During the Middle Ages, castle dwellers discovered that bending plants into intricate designs on vertical flat surfaces turned drab courtyards into stunning art galleries.
While securing plants to wires or trellises continues to be popular, tying plants to walls and structures holds special appeal to design-conscious gardeners. There are many reasons for this. Espalier affords a gardener the opportunity to turn ordinary, and in some instances misshapen, woody plants into stunning two-dimensional forms. It is also an efficient way to open up precious gardening space in small areas because an espaliered plant is never allowed to retake its former three-dimensional shape. Plus, plants pinned to a wall can’t monopolize sunlight. This makes espaliered trees especially attractive to city gardeners who are stuck with growing only shade-loving plants. However, espalier is not just for urbanites. It lends notes of sophistication to suburban outbuildings and breezeways. Consider the design possibilities of a tree fastened against a poolside wall.
While calculated tying and pruning potentially turns nearly any woody ornamental into an artistic statement, espalier is not for an impatient gardener. Even when a plant is allowed to grow along a wall informally, it often takes several growing seasons before a specimen fully exhibits the grower’s intent. Sometimes it takes a decade for a plant to reach its peak form.
Deciding where and what to plant requires careful planning. Also keep in mind that in order to obtain the eventual desired effect, diligent and thoughtful pruning will become a long-term commitment. To make communicating with garden professionals more enjoyable, become acquainted with rudimentary espalier vocabulary.
Prior to visiting a nursery or scheming with a garden designer or landscape architect, become familiar with standard espalier-design styles. When a tree with a vertical trunk and lateral branches is attached to a hard-flat surface, it is said to have a “cordon” profile. Two other solid-wall styles are self-descriptive: “fan” and “candelabra.” Gardeners who prefer a freestanding trellis train plants to grow in a lattice-like fashion. This is referred to as a “Belgian” or “English fence” style.
Sketching out a design plan also helps—even when the intended pattern is meant to be an informal one. For example, if an espaliered plant is destined to soften an exterior corner on a tall building and will be left to grow up and along both sides, come up with a drawing—even if it’s a simple doodle—to hand to a plantsman. This should help them find an appropriate plant.
Although the list of woody plants amenable to espalier is nearly endless, it’s important to consider a plant’s growth habit. Does the desired design pattern need upward-slanting branches or horizontal ones? While crape myrtle is often listed as a candidate for espalier, some varieties, such as ‘Velma’s,’ grow upright branches while others, like ‘Acoma,’ display a spreading behavior.
Charleston gardeners might be disappointed to learn that fruit trees are often touted as excellent espalier contenders. Unfortunately, many popular fruit trees, especially apples, don’t thrive in the Lowcountry’s sultry weather. But don’t give up hope. Pineapple guava (Feijoa sellowiana) is an exceptionally attractive fruit tree that suits our climate. Its light scarlet springtime flowers are striking, and the reddish-brown fruit that appears in autumn provides additional interest. If fruiting is not a requirement, an outstanding plant for formal or informal design is scarlet firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea).
No matter the design, permanently securing a living thing to any surface—but especially if it’s a dwelling or solid wall—requires special consideration. Learn about anchoring devices, and heed instructions on how to achieve maximum airflow between the plant and the structure. In other words, take professional advice seriously and scrupulously follow all directions.
PJ Gartin is a freelance garden writer who lives in Charleston.