Pruning is a very ancient practice, the necessary step to determine the relationship between man and nature, the intervention by the first to shape the latter to make it productive and satisfy his needs. Pruning was already practiced by ancient Romans, in fact, the Italian verb potare, pruning, derives from the Latin putare, to sever, cut, clean, trim. Ancient peoples had noticed that when donkeys or sheep passed by plants and, when grass lacked, nibbled their branches, these grew back more productive and lush the following spring. So this practice turned into a need to have better production and, above all in fruit plants like vine and olive trees, but also in citrus and other fruit trees, to keep fruit quality the same. It dates back to ancient Romans not only pruning for agricultural ends but also for decorative purposes.
Topiary art, together with gardening, originated in the 1st century B.C. in ancient Rome at the time of Lucullus and Sallustius when simple cultivation of plants does no longer suffice and sumptuous gardens are created adorned with luxurious constructions like porticos, nymphaeums, small temples all connected through long paths with pergolas and small groves. Plinius attributes to Gaius Martius of the equestrian order the invention of this art in which the gardener is interested in artistically shaping plants into geometric figures, animals, objects or human figures by cutting branches and trimming leaves and using metal supports. Topiarius means painted or frescoed landscape and in fact, these plants were set in aprons, courtyards, or along paths either individually or in group composing hunting scenes, fleets of ships, episodes of the Trojan war.
The best-suited plant for this purpose is boxwood but also other plants like yew trees, hawthorn, holly, and laurel. Topiary also dominates the gardens built between the 16th and the 18th century where boxwood hedges mark the borders of flower beds that formed large floral frescos like three-dimensional tapestries. Conceptually close to topiary, that is a forced shaping of the plant, is the Asian art of bonsai which creates miniature trees not only through the pruning of branches and leaves but also through the trimming and cutting of roots although keeping the shape the plant would have had if allowed to naturally develop. Bonsai is the attempt to capture the natural energy of trees and enclose it in a smaller version of the plant which still maintains the original beauty and character.
This art started in China in the 3rd-2nd century B.C. and was called punsai (plant in a pot) and it originally was probably just a method to carry plants which were useful to nomads or herbalists and reconnected to the idea of the strength of a miniature replica in the theory of the five agents, earth, fire, metal, water and wood. A legend dating back to the Han dynasty tells the story of a man who miniaturized landscapes and probably referred to bonsai but the art of bonsai started centuries later and, from China, it arrived in Japan thanks to Buddhist monks who used to go to China to study chan (zen) doctrines. Like topiary art, bonsai art wants to amaze but adds the element of emotion. We find trees with twisted trunks and those that seemed bent by strong winds which require several generations to reach the desired shape. Bonsai thus detaches itself from a gardening art to become spirituality and philosophy with bonsais that, thanks to man’s work, create feelings of calm, melancholy, serenity or quietness. The result seems absolutely natural but in reality, it is only the fruit of man’s work where nothing is left to chance.
French linguist Emile Benveniste, in his Dictionary of Indo-European Institutions, presents the Latin verb putare - which apart from pruning also means evaluate, consider, esteem, thus the origin of words like reputation, and calculate, thus words like computer – as a metaphor of pruning showing how abstract language is a transposition of the concrete language of practical activities. So, according to Benveniste, putare, that is cut, means to evaluate by exclusion, that is cutting and letting go wrong judgments until the final choice is reached. Precisely a choice is at the origin of decorative and not agricultural pruning. First of all the choice of the type of pruning to adopt: the topiary fantastic and surreal constriction or the 19th century English garden where the apparent disorder is the result of great attention and care? Pruning requires the ability to have a vision for the future.
The gardener who sets himself to pruning and put in order must be well aware at all times of the result he/she wants to reach, even when cutting the tiniest branches. It is necessary to be able to concentrate on a single branch and all the same, have a clear image of the end result. One must be brave and careful when cutting not only for an aesthetic result but also for the well being of the plant, which may require the elimination of tender or old and majestic branches. Every year one must decide whether to keep the original style and set up of the garden or change them to reflect the plants' evolution or the changes in the gardener’s changes of taste or feeling.
During the course of life, I have personally gone through times when I needed certainties and paths, and the pruning of my garden became more drastic, geometric, and controlling. In other times of greater calm, instead, pruning was less drastic, plants grew producing flowers and fruits and seemed to rest and settle thanks to pruning that was limited to the elimination of excessive branches so that the sun could penetrate among leaves or fronds. During a period of oriental readings, I learned the technique of open core pruning and I transformed the trees by eliminating the elements which complicated and burdened the structure and so revealing the essence. Each branch I cut was like removing a useless frill from a too baroque life, it was like lightening my soul and it allowed me to understand my essence. This type of pruning is not easy, neither in the garden nor in life because it requires discipline, vision, trials and verifications. Metaphorically, pruning is the opposite of Western culture. It is the path towards smaller instead of larger, towards silence instead of noise, towards less instead of more, towards simplicity and essentiality which, remembering what Saint-Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, becomes instead visible to the eye.