Decorative effects can be achieved by plaiting the young shoots, tying them down or weaving them together. Topiary pieces can be grandiose, or kitsch, or abstract and formal.
‘Parterres’, says the Oxford Companion, ‘are flower gardens, particularly in the area adjoining the house, laid out in a regular ornamental manner.’ In fact, they were often designs traced out on beds without flowers but filled with inert material to show off the pattern – ground brick, marble, even coal dust. From the time of the Italian Renaissance, when gardens became part of the architect’s brief, they were designed to be viewed from above. They were on geometric lines, and usually comprised equal numbers of beds with different patterns. In Italy these were known as compartimenti, while the French called them compartiments.
In seventeenth-century France, the compartiments had become parterres. Instead of being numerous regular squares with patterns based on squares and circles, they were now one large overall flowing pattern, like a Turkish carpet laid before the palace or château in grand style. Categorized by type, they ranged from the elegant parterre de broderie (embroidery parterre of swirling patterns), to the parterre de pièces coupées (where the patterns were cut into the turf on simpler lines) and the much plainer parterre à l’anglaise, which the English called a ‘plat’.
Though in practice the words have often been used interchangeably, the distinction between knots and parterres is that knots (in French entrelacs) form an actual knot without beginning or end, so represent infinity. The symbolism goes back to third-century bc Sumerian carvings of intertwined snakes. The eternal ‘lovers’ knot’ was the height of fashion in England at the time of the Tudors (who had a passion for puzzles).
The arrangement of the patterns on the ground, whether knots, compartments or parterres, often sprang from practical considerations. The simplest of patterns is the four-square garden intersected by a cross – charhar bagh, from charhar (four) and bagh (river). This was dictated by the need for water, irrigation frequently being achieved by means of a grid system with water drawn from a central source. Later it came to represent the Cosmic Cross, which symbolizes all of creation (there are four points of the compass, four seasons, four corners of the earth and four winds of heaven).
With the rise of Christianity the Cosmic Cross became the Holy Cross. The fountain in the centre now represented baptism and possibly the Holy Spirit.
topiary, knots and parterres