“Espalier” is a French word derived from the Italian word “spalliera”, which means “something to rest the shoulder against” (spalla, in Italian and epaule in French) and originally defined only the trellis, or frame, on which the plant was trained. The ancient art and horticultural practice of pruning tree branches into fanciful shapes is timeless. Today, top garden designers are returning to the past and rethinking this “haute” form of horticulture. The classical and formal beauty of the Espalier enhances European inspired garden designs with their symmetry and versatility. Compact ornamental beauty used for privacy as a screen, adorning bare walls or defining outdoor spaces, including walkways and entrances, the Espalier thrives as “living architecture”.
The Espalier is the method of training the branches of a tree to grow on a vertical plane against a wall, trellis or wire fence, by securing the selected branches outwards from opposite sides of the trunk. Often called “wall trees” or “wall fruit”, the Espaliered trees are useful for any narrow planting line or a close, confined area and are a practical solution for gardeners with limited space. Espaliered trees are a stunning focal point that has the added benefit to its architectural appeal– an abundance of fruits and flowers.
The time honored practice of Espalier is said to possibly date back to tombs of Ancient Egypt, around 1400 BC, where tomb paintings bore paintings of Espaliered fig trees growing in Pharoah’s garden. Again, who knew? In the Middle Ages in Europe, Espaliered fruit trees inside walled monastery gardens and castle courtyards were depicted in manuscripts. During the 16th and 17th century in England, and especially France, the trained branches of the Espalier gained widespread popularity. Heavily popularized during the heyday during France’s reign of King Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, the potager (kitchen garden) of the elaborate Chateau de Versailles is said to have contained thousands of fruit trees trained into more than 44 different forms, or formes fruitieres, as Espalier patterns are called in French. In the British American colonies and in the early republic, the ornamentation paired with the function of fruit bearing trees were also highly admired. Form and function at its best.
The Espalier provides variety in stunning two dimensional forms, guided and trained into a structural, timeless design. Originally, espaliers were trained to brick or stone walls as the masonry absorbed the sun’s heat allowed quick ripening of the fruit. Indeed, beyond an art form, it is actually considered a science, as it increases an orchards productivity. Interestingly, as the roots of tree itself has less areas to nourish due to less branches, known as “suckering” branches in which the shoots growing vertically, the bounty is increased greatly. Proving a point that often, the investment of time often yields a bounty that is certainly worthy of the time itself. Standard and dwarf fruit trees are the most commonly used trees for Espaliers but woody ornamentals, such as Holly and Magnolia, can also be used. It is the artistry of pruning shears and the credit of nature that result in this timeless design.
There are many Espalier forms and designs that range from simple, informal free flowing architecture to the more formal and complicated designs and patterns. Truth be told, it is the more formal designs that beckon my eyes to rest upon them! The most common formal styles are known as the Horizontal Cordon, Candelabra, Belgian and the Fan.
No matter which form is chosen, whether free standing or a wall tree, all forms share the basic techniques for dedicated pruning and training during the Winter and the Summer. The art of the Espalier takes approximately 4-8 years to hand-sculpt into centuries old classic European forms. Amazing diligence! A dedication of time for a timeless design, indeed. Alas, a dedication well worth the investment.
Consider the elegance and ancient appeal of the Espalier. If only in appreciation, it is worth our attention…