Artisan: branching out with living sculptures.

AuthorHalpin, Anne

The fine art of espalier, by the Leuthardt masters

Rows of trees in fantastic shapes greet visitors entering the Henry Leuthardt Nursery in East Moriches. Some resemble candelabras, with two or three pairs of U-shaped arms. Others form simple vertical or horizontal lines. Some have branches splayed out like a lady's fan. Most amazing of all is a group of trees whose diagonal branches interlace to form a grid of diamond-shaped spaces.

These trees are not the magical creations of some woodland wizard. They're espaliered fruit trees, grown and trained by three generations of the Leuthardt family. On this rainy winter day their intricate forms, free of leaves or fruit, compel closer scrutiny.

Some of the trees are young and still being coaxed into mesmerizing shapes, their branches tied to wooden frames. Others are old and gnarled, planted when Henry Leuthardt moved his nursery to this location from Westchester in 1955. Since then, three generations of Leuthardts have practiced espalier, an art whose medium is neither paint nor plaster, but living things.

Old-World Techniques

Espalier, the fine art of the western horticultural world, is a method of training the branches of trees to form elegant, two-dimensional patterns. Estate gardeners in medieval Europe devised the practice as a way to grow fruit trees in the limited spaces of walled courtyard gardens. (According to Henry P. Leuthardt, the open shapes allow more sunlight into the center of the tree, resulting in larger, sweeter fruit.) Espaliers graced many of the great palaces and country homes of European nobility and royalty.

Henry Leuthardt learned espalier techniques as a boy in Switzerland, where he and his father were caretakers on an estate. The young man became adept at the art, winning awards for his work. In 1922 he immigrated to this country and established his first nursery. He designed an espalier garden for the 1939 World's Fair in New York and today, Leuthardt trees can be seen in botanical gardens, at the United Nations, in the gardens of celebrities, on East End estates and throughout the country.

Henry Leuthardt's son, Henry P. Leuthardt, has been for decades the acknowledged master of the art of espalier in the United States. A fit, gray-haired man with intense, lively blue eyes, Henry P. learned the techniques from childhood at his father's nursery and later studied pomology at Cornell University. He ran the nursery from the 1970s until his retirement. "He was about the...

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