Plants bring fantasies to life in new summer topiary display

By Wayne Bryan Published June 5, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

A dragon topiary with fiery red eyes is part of the new summer display, Mystic Creatures: Topiary Art Meets Imagination, at Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs.

What brings together university architects, professional landscapers, craftsmen, horticulturalists and volunteers, then mixes them with fairy tales, mysteries and mythic beasts of the forest?

Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs does in its new summer display, Mystic Creatures: Topiary Art Meets Imagination. The new exhibit, which opened Sunday, is the first of its kind in Arkansas and has been created with the help of students from the University of Arkansas.

“There are four major exhibits in the Mystic Creatures presentations,” said Becca Ohman, director of operations for the gardens, a division of the university. “One was done in-house here at the gardens, one is from a group of volunteers working with our people, and two are from third-year landscape architect students from the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture.”

The university designs were created by students who studied design, plant materials and structural systems. Those systems are needed to create sculptures made with plants that will remain alive while on display and beyond, Ohman said.

“There was supposed to be just one student design,” she said. “However, two of them were so good, we couldn’t select just one, so we have two: a Sasquatch and a sea serpent.”

The largest and most spectacular display is Roarin’ Rodric, the Sea Serpent, a great creature that is more than 16 feet tall and measures 42 feet from its bearded snout to the bright yellow tip of the creature’s tail. And that does not count the “submerged” parts of the beast, only the great head, a hump of its long body and more than 10 feet of tail.

Made of plants in multiple shades of green and blue-green, with red highlights, the sea serpent also displays big ear flaps and a collar of bright yellow and red made from burlap. The creature also has rich red eyes the size of softballs on either side of its head.

“The eyes are actually balls of artificial berries we use as Christmas ornaments,” said Bob Byers, associate director of Garvan Woodland Gardens. “Several pieces are part of our annual Holiday Lights displays that we have re-purposed for the Mystic Creatures display.”

Byers, who is also the gardens’ top horticulturist, said that while the exhibit is subtitled Topiary Art Meets Imagination, the best term for the displays is actually mosaiculture. After the frame of a display was made, volunteers sewed hundreds of feet of what they called soil socks, forming long tubes from shadecloth, a material used in nurseries.

“The socks were filled with soil and set between inner and outer frames. Holes were pinched in the socks, and plants were placed in the holes, following the display’s design. Byers said that while the socks are perhaps a curve along the back of the sea serpent, they are planted in much the same way as carpet bedding. These growing patterns are matched up with with more traditional topiary, or shrubs clipped into specific shapes, to create parts of the imaginary creatures.

When the exhibition is over, the plants will be replanted somewhere in the gardens or saved in the garden’s nurseries until next year’s displays.

While the exhibit is open through Aug. 31, Byers said, the displays will develop and change throughout the summer.

“We are looking at planting blue flowers so Rodric is swimming in a sea of blue,” he said. “We are planning on having an enchanted forest using these displays and others next summer.”

Sherre Freeman, marketing director for the gardens, said garden officials plan to make the topiary figures a family-friendly event for the summer, just as the Holiday Lights program brings in families and groups during December.

“We are looking to next year, when we will try to have smoke or steam come out of Rodric’s nose,” Ohman said.

Another striking Mystic Creature is Jolly Roger, the Sasquatch. Standing more than 13 feet high and around 4 feet wide at the shoulders, the Bigfoot, Yeti or any of the other names from this legendary apelike creature is formidable with his huge hands and coat of fur-like plant called Sedge.

“It is hard to grow,” Byers said. “It is hard to grow, and we have struggled to keep it going because some places on its body get very little sun, and it’s hard to water.”

However, a lack of water has not been a problem with days of rain falling as the creatures were constructed and the exhibit opened over the weekend.

“The face is really something,” Ohman said. “The eyes are taxidermy eyes used for elephants. And the face was created with rubber paint used on swimming pools.”

Garden officials said they expect Roger to be a favorite with children during the summer. At 8 p.m. Monday, garden education director Megan Bradshaw will lead a summer night hike for children called Looking for Sasquatch.

While making their way to the giant and mysterious creature, the children will learn about night creatures such as raccoons, owls and foxes. Kids will hear about how these animals see in the dark and other fun facts about a night in the forest.

Another major display included in the gardens this summer is the Fairy Gourdmother, a small house that looks to have been made from a giant gourd. The story is that fairies in the gardens worked all winter to turn the gourd into a house for woodland creatures and children who might lose their way.

The interior of the structure is fashioned to resemble the inside of a pumpkin, Ohman said, with seeds on strings still attached to the roof, giving the Gourdmother a warm and inviting glow, as befits a house built by fairies.

The woodland fairies of the gardens have their own village nearby. Byers said the tiny village was built for the fairies with the help of the Forest Lakes Woodworkers, a volunteer group that works with the gardens.

“When they started, everything was neat, square and plumb, ” Byers said. “I told them that was for fairies, and they needed to change to something that looks like it belongs to fairies, with open roofs and strange angles.”

The idea for the Mystic Creatures summer exhibition came from Byers, who travels through the nation to see what other public gardens are doing.

“I get inspirations from topiary exhibits from all over the country, and last summer I saw an exhibition in Atlanta,” Byers said. “I thought we could do something like what I saw there.”

However, Ohman pointed out a big difference between the display pieces found in Georgia last year and this summer’s presentation at the gardens.

“These were made here,” she said. “Those were made in Canada and then shipped to Atlanta. We planned the designs and ordered the plants last November. When they arrived, we grew them in our nurseries and created the displays.”

Along with the displays, programs will be offered at the gardens for all ages of visitors this summer, Freeman said.

“We all wanted this summer to be family-friendly,” she said.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or

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