The Romans were probably the first to discover that box foliage could be trimmed and clipped to form rigidly sculptural shapes. They called the art form opus tonsil/io, or barber’s work. By 1592 this type of intensive foliage sculpture was called topiary and was all the rage. Box plants seem oblivious to these constant cutbacks and simply respond with persistent healthy growth. This tenacious attitude, coupled with its luscious evergreen leaves, earned box its links with devoted friendship and stoicism. Boxwood, being dense and strong, was also highly prized in the art world for carving wood blocks to make prints.
The venerable auricula would have been the subject of many such prints. A new colour or form can still make enthusiasts quiver with excitement. By the latter half of the seventeenth century the cult of the auricula was in full swing. In 1757 the first green flower was bred and soon after came a slate grey one, which, along with the now- vanished striped flower, became the most highly prized of all. The auricula has a range of colours unique in the world of flowers, ranging from red to gold via amethyst and bronze. Artists as well as gardeners appreciated this floral palette and soon auriculas appeared in every still-life painting. And by the nineteenth century the auricula had itself become the appropriate floral symbol of the painter’s art.
I find auriculas totally irresistible. At the height of their fame they were exhibited in specially constructed ‘theatres’, which displayed them, jewel-like, upon tiered shelves with rich velvet backdrops. This is a poor-man’s version of those theatres and is much easier to make than it looks. I used a special square of floral foam designed for funeral tributes. These come in many shapes, so be bold and experiment. Cut box foliage is available from florists or you can use hedge trimmings. Insert small sprigs into the foam as closely together as possible but leave empty spaces for the auricula plants. When it is densely covered, trim the box shape tightly like a piece of topiary.