Espalier refers to a garden structure that was used to support plants, particularly fruit trees. Visual evidence, such as the engraving of the College of Rhode Island [Fig. 1] and Rubens Peale’s painting of the Peale Museum in Philadelphia [Fig. 2], indicates that training trees against walls was practiced in America throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Written evidence also documents this practice, although these descriptions were often very brief. One must turn to treatises for detailed discussions of espaliers.
Treatises, particularly those from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, distinguished among at least three different types of espaliers. First, and most rare, was what Ephraim Chambers (1741) referred to as the British espalier: “rows of trees, planted regularly round the out-side of a garden, or plantation, for the general security thereof,” but notably, Chambers did not specify which type of tree. This form of barrier could be made of elm, lime, oak, or pine trees. For a shorter barrier, or the hedge espalier, Chambers recommended such trees as apple, holly, and laurel.
In the second form of espalier, trees (and possibly shrubs) were affixed and spread against a wall, while the third, closely related form featured trees and/or shrubs that were trained on a trellis or lattice to stand as an independent hedge-like unit. Philip Miller, in The Gardeners Dictionary(1754), referred to the latter form when he explained that the “most commonly received notion of Espaliers are hedges of Fruit-trees . . . trained up regularly to Lattice of Wood-work.” The walls, trellises, or lattices associated with the second and third forms provided the ideal shelter for nurturing “tender” or less hardy plants, and also established structures useful for training the growth of young plants (see Trellis).
If Miller’s claim about the most commonly received notion of espaliers was true of American usage (and it is likely that it was), then the discussions by eighteenth-century Americans of espaliers of fruit trees indicate that the trees were trained to trellises or lattices. They also indicate the possible appearance of fruit espaliers described by Thomas Hancock (1736) and Rev. Manasseh Cutler (1778), as well as those mentioned by George Washington (1785), who owned a copy of Miller’s book, and by an observer in 1800 of Adrian Valeck’s estate in Baltimore.
Despite the availability of European treatises that addressed both the idea of espaliers and built examples in America, Bernard M’Mahon (1806) asserted that “some people have not a sufficient idea of what is meant by espaliers.” M’Mahon’s definition—“hedges of fruit-trees . . . trained up regularly to a lattice or trellis of wood work, and . . . commonly arranged in a single row in the borders [and] . . . boundaries . . . of the kitchen-garden”—reiterates the concepts of previous treatise writers, particularly those of Miller. The fruit trees that M’Mahon referred to dominated nineteenth-century descriptions of espaliers, though in 1817 John Abercrombie argued that older fruit espaliers were unproductive and too formal in appearance.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, espaliers also served to mark divisions in the garden and to screen workplaces. The mid-eighteenth-century plan of Rosewell, on the York River, Va., which reveals an alternating system of hedges and espaliers in the outlines of garden plots, illustrates the use of espaliers to enclose and separate garden divisions [Fig. 3]. Adrian Valeck also used the espalier feature as a border for the walks and squares of his garden.
To fulfill these spatial functions and to provide an environment conducive to growing, either trellises, lattice work, or rails were used to give support to trees. By the mid-nineteenth century, the term referred to this support material, as demonstrated by Noah Webster’s 1850 definition of “espalier,” which, unlike his 1828 version, included a secondary denotation as “a lattice-work of wood, on which to train fruit-trees and ornamental shrubs.”
The wide range of material used for espaliers and method of treatment was indicated in both Philip Miller’s The Gardeners Dictionary (1754) and J. C. Loudon’s An Encyclopaedia of Gardening (1826), which included specifications for simple wooden espaliers, framed wooden espalier rails, cast-iron espalier rails, horizontal espalier rails, and oblique espalier rails. A. J. Downing, in his 1847 description of the fruit garden at Wodenethe, noted that the espalier used there brought fruit to greater perfection. In lining the walks and providing a support structure for a single row of fruit trees, such an espalier matched the specifications of most nineteenth-century descriptions by American treatise writers and lexicographers.
- In Peale’s museum wires strung between the fence posts may have provided support for the espaliers. It is difficult though to determine if the dark, horizontal lines painted on the fence indicate either wires or plank divisions.