Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Dragon Roars Back

By C.J. Hirschfield

Topiary is the horticultural practice of training live perennial plants by clipping foliage to develop and maintain clearly defined shapes, usually geometric or fanciful. European topiary dates back to Roman times.

Walt Disney – who by now you must know was heavily influenced by Children’s Fairyland – helped bring the American portable style of topiary into being around 1962, when he used steel-wire frames through which plants extended as they grew. He re-created his cartoon characters as landscape shrubbery throughout Disneyland.

Fairyland got into the topiary game in 1999. The New York Times noted our achievement with this headline: “Dusting Off an Enchanted Land and Adding Some Dragons.” 
Behold the dragon's newly trimmed face!

Here’s what the article said:

Before there was Disneyland, there was Children's Fairyland, a 10-acre park in Oakland, Calif., near Lake Merritt. Since 1950, children have entered through the Old Lady's Shoe and ambled from Mary Had a Little Lamb to the Three Little Pigs, where they can play with live animals. But over the last 30 years, attendance has decreased and paint has flaked. Now Fairyland is fighting back.
In 1994, a local civic group took over operations, and in June, renovations began. The group has raised $1.5 million of the $15 million needed. At Fairyland, the mandate has always been no straight lines or right angles. A dragon topiary designed by Lucia Howard and David Weingarten of Ace Architects will become the entrance.
Ace Architects' rendering of Fairyland's topiary dragon.

Our dragon topiary officially opened in 2001, and Lucia Howard, a founder and principal of the Oakland-based architecture firm, recently recalled its genesis. “We wanted to reflect a more multicultural vocabulary and history with the architecture,” she said. Our dragon, with its big eyes, horns and teeth, is modeled after Chinese New Year dragons. “He’s so joyous —not evil — and his friendly, goofy look reminds us of parades,” said Lucia.

Lucia also wanted the variegated ivy that covers the dragon to suggest a sort of secret garden entrance to the park, turning a large wall into a softer and more welcoming building.

And, she added, you can see him from quite a distance.

Last week, Fairyland Facilities Manager Nick Mitchell climbed up scaffolding to give our dragon a much-needed trimming of its 20-foot-high face. Horticulturist Jackie Salas directed the operation.
Facilities Manager Nick Mitchell conquers the dragon.

While he was up in the air, Nick made two interesting discoveries.

First, he believes that the dragon’s eyes were designed to light up. He can’t wait to figure out how to make it happen.

And second, he found that the ivy that overgrew the dragon’s mouth provided a perfect spot for a local raccoon to take up residence. Without its cover, the raccoon will now have to find another spot.

Fairyland horticulturist Jackie Salas bags the topiary trimmings.

Lucia’s original plan was to plant ivy on both sides of our entryway, in hopes that the plants would soon meet in the middle and fill in the space.

She wasn’t expecting the process to take 15 years, but the two plantings are finally close to connecting. The lovely species of multicolored ivy she chose is a slower-growth variety than the ones that take over many of our local yards.

Fairyland’s topiary dragon isn’t the only one in the world. In England, a 75-year-old man spent 13 years turning a “boring” hedge into a 150-foot-long giant dragon.
English topiary dragon.

And in its 2007 Christmas catalog, luxury retailer Neiman Marcus offered a topiary dragon by artist Matthew Larkin, complete with gold-leafed horns, claws, teeth and fins. With its blown-glass eyes and custom-welded steel frame, it was a bargain at the listed price of $35,000. The artist offered to whip it up on your own property using indigenous plants.

Neiman Marcus topiary dragon.

Here at Fairyland, we’re excited to see our dragon’s beautiful face once again. Nick is already thinking about how he might get smoke to come out of its mouth.

And what does the dragon’s designer think of this idea?

“Love it,” says Lucia.

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park.

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