A cottage industry in Elgin is on the topiary comeback trail. Meet Andrea Semple of Topiary Creations…
Words: Marianne Heron
Pictures: David Morgan
You never can tell what the unintended consequence of an action may be. Take the experience of Andrea Semple, who set out one day more than 14 years ago, not to have a ball but to make one. She ended up with a flourishing business.
It was a topiary ball that she made, at a once-off one-day course in Cape Town. “I used to be passionate about gardening now I don’t have time to garden,” Andrea tells me at the Elgin Valley home she shares with husband Rob, daughter Kate, sons Andrew and James and a canine cast of Rosie the Ridgeback plus Basil and Lucy the Jack Russells.
On the Semples’s farm are grown apples, and a number of other fruits from blueberries to peaches, all with a view over the hillsides. It’s the setting for a creative enterprise of topiary products that are snapped up countrywide by lifestyle boutiques, florists and major retailers. What started out as a hobby for Andrea grew as friends bought her topiary creations, and she expanded as retailers discovered her work.
Topiary is the art of training evergreen shrubs and trees into formal shapes. Popular in European gardens for centuries, you could say it’s a skill as old as the hills, especially the hills of Tuscany, where topiary reached its peak in the Renaissance period. Later, all manner of birds and beasts were clipped out of greenery as conversation pieces in Tudor and Elizabethan times. It’s a garden art that is enjoying a revival.
Andrea’s modern South African take on topiary is to use sustainably harvested indigenous fynbos leaves, branches and seeds, dried and treated to preserve their natural colour, from which she creates a huge variety of decorative objects. “We buy material by the truckload from fynbos farmers, from Napier to Bredasdorp,” explains Andrea. “We treat it with glycerine, hang it up for a couple of days, and store it ready for use.”
Beside her home, the workroom-showroom is filled with every kind of creative topiary you could imagine, and some you cannot possible have dreamed of. Think of a chandelier featuring leaping reindeer, made by Edward, Andrea’s right-hand man. “Edward is the creative one,” she says.
When Christmas is over, taking with it the rush to finish reindeers and special wreaths and decorations, Valentine’s Day is then around the corner, and Easter and Mother’s Day not far away. The workshop is bustling as everyone finishes off beautiful gift baskets and solid and wreath hearts, made from slangbos, penny gum and buxifolia. In another section, gorgeous Easter bunnies wait for a finishing touch.
“Topiary is not cheap because it’s handmade but it has such a long life although mustn’t be placed in direct sunlight,” says Andrea. She explains that bringing foliage, especially wreaths, into a home stems from ancient folklore and traditions that go back to the Romans and to pagan beliefs. Druids believed that evergreen holly, with its scarlet berries, was sacred and it was brought indoors in winter to ensure the return of spring. The circle of a wreath symbolises everlasting life, and harvest wreaths were believed to give protection against crop failure. Midsummer wreaths of flowers picked before the dew was dry had magical properties. No wonder we are drawn to them.
A staff of ten is now employed full-time but Andrea’s family happily gets involved from time to time. Her daughter Kate, who studied tourism at university, has now joined the business on the marketing side. But Andrea does not want her business to grow any bigger. “It would become a factory and I miss the creativity when I have to work flat out for months at a time.”
But watching her plan a giant wreath to be planted with air plants, it seems creativity will always be a key ingredient in her topiary designs.