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The Growing of Espaliers

Updated on May 5, 2013

Espalier is a plant that is trained to grow flat against a wall or other support. Espaliers can be trained to form many decorative patterns and are popular as landscape plants, hedges, arbors, and wall coverings. They are also extensively grown in commercial fruit orchards, especially in Europe, to take maximum advantage of available space and sunlight.

Successful espaliers require special planning and maintenance. Selection of the proper type of plant is important, especially when the effects of sun and wind are accentuated by the wall or other support. Fruit trees, such as apples and pears, make effective espaliers, as do many vines (wisteria, ivy); deciduous shrubs (pyracantha, burning bush); and certain coniferous plants (juniper, yew, white pine). The choice of a support depends on the plant selected, the espalier form desired, and the particular use of the plant. Popular supports include trellises, lattices, fences, and walls.

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Espaliered plants should be carefully pruned to encourage and control the amount of branching and growth that is desired. Securing the branches to the support develops and maintains the desired shape. Careful attention to details, such as the time of year for pruning, the location of buds, and the angle of branching, largely determines the success of the operation. Because espaliers are grown in confined areas, care should be taken that there is adequate, but not excessive, watering, fertilizing, and pest control.

There are three basic espalier shapes: the cordon, the palmette, and the goblet, each of which has many variations. The cordon is the easiest form of espalier for the amateur gardener to attempt. It consists of a single upright stem with the fruit and foliage borne on short branches trained to grow at right angles or parallel to the stem. The palmette is shaped like an open hand, with several branches radiating from the central stem. Variations include the horizontal palmette, the oblique palmette, the candlelabra, and the fan. In the goblet forms, the branches are trained upward to form the sides and lip of an imaginary goblet. In a reverse goblet the branches are trained downward to produce an effect similar to that of a weeping willow.

The ancient Romans grew fruit trees against walls for both protection and support, utilizing the reflected heat and light from the walls to produce better quality, quicker-ripening fruit. Paintings and horticultural books from the Middle Ages indicate that the art of making espaliers was then practiced in central Europe and England. Espaliers gained great popularity in the 16th to 19th centuries when the classic forms known today were first developed and described by such famous French horticulturists as Claude Mollet, the head gardener at Fountainebleu; Jean de la Quintinye, the director of the horticultural gardens at Versailles; and Henri Duhamel-Dumonceau. Today, espaliers have gained renewed popularity in formal gardens, commercial fruit orchards, and residential landscapes.


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