Kazuko Higashi Discovered a New Talent at Age 55: Creating Topiaries

Kazuko Higashi taught herself the art of topiary as a 55-year-old widow.
Kazuko Higashi taught herself the art of topiary as a 55-year-old widow.
Photo by Danny Liao

On a searingly hot summer day, Kazuko Higashi is sitting on a small stool in the garden shed of Fujiyama Nursery, clippers in hand. A slight, tanned, reticent woman of 75, Higashi is a self-taught topiary master, and today she is turning a shrub into a deer.

The nursery, which Higashi owns, has been supplying the sleepy bedroom community of Walnut, California, with ferns and ficuses for 50 years. Every so often, she pauses in her work and rises irritably to answer an interrupting phone call or tend to customers as the angry buzz of the entry bell sounds.

She started making topiary, she estimates, "About 10 years? Twenty years ago?" Just like that, a decade slipped by. It seems only yesterday that she and her husband moved to California from Osaka.

Owning a nursery was Mr. Higashi's idea. After he died in a car accident in 1989, Mrs. Higashi and Fujiyama's longtime gardener, Eladio Jimenez, taught themselves how to construct wire cages in various shapes. They figured topiary would help sell the plants.

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"We didn't know how to cut it. We just look and we make it," she says sheepishly. Their first one was a bear. "First one is ugly," she says. Someone bought it anyway.

There have been all manner of bears since — teddy bears, miniature bears, grizzly bears, even a UCLA bruin. A customer sent over a picture for her to copy. "How big? Eladio-san!" she calls out. "About 5 foot long?"

Jimenez squints in the heat. "Oh, about 4 feet long. Six feet tall," he says.

Each topiary piece begins with a chicken-wire frame. On a table next to Higashi is an old encyclopedia purchased long ago from a door-to-door salesman. She bought it for her daughters, but uses it these days as a visual reference. As she works, silently and efficiently, the heat from her bare fingers warms the wire and softens it. She doesn't bother with gloves, which would only make her clumsy. Over the years, her hands have grown tough and strong.

To help her remember the specifications of the creatures she has made, Higashi keeps a little notebook with measurements for each animal. Barring that, topiary is not something she can explain, only do.

How unexpected and wonderful to discover a new talent at 55, people tell her. She is not artistic in the regular sense. She does not draw, or paint, or even sculpt. Topiaries were hard to make at first. "Cutting the wire hurts the finger," she says, then with a sly smile, adds, "Now it looks very easy, right?"

No one animal is more difficult than another, she says. "Birds and elephant looks very different. But they are all animal. Body and legs. Wing. Head. Almost same."

In 20 years, she has made legions of squirrels, chickens, fish, butterflies, eagles, frogs, toads, snails, seahorses, mushrooms and swans. She has made raccoons and roadrunners, rabbits and roosters, pigs, jackrabbits and sheep. She has made a teapot and a T-rex. For sports aficionados, she has made golfers, basketball and baseball players, and a rider astride a horse. For devoted pet owners, she has made cats and dogs. She likes figuring out the shapes: "When somebody asks a new one, I want to try."

Each piece seems to capture the very essence of the creature or thing it represents: the jaunty, curled tail of a shiba inu; the ruffled skirt of a flamenco dancer — one of a pair of life-size dancers that took a week to shape; the undulating body of a Chinese dragon. That dragon was so long it had to be propped up on several garbage cans while she was making it.

After each frame is done, she sticks a plant inside it—a Japanese boxwood, usually, or fragrant rosemary or a slow-growing Eugenia compacta, with small, pretty, glossy, oblong leaves. She demonstrates how to wrap the shrub into a frame, how to push each fresh tendril back in as it grows out, and then insert tiny sticks to bend the plant so it contours to its wire cage.

She has no favorites. She also doesn't keep any of her own topiary at her house in nearby Diamond Bar. "Why?" she says. "I don't need at home."

Yet she is not without pride. Sometimes, she drives around to visit her creations — a giant elephant near the intersection of Grand and Holt avenues, a large horse on the front lawn of a house in a nearby subdivision. "The horse, they take good care of it," she says.

"I've seen that one," a customer offers. "During Christmastime they put a red cape on it."

Higashi grimaces. "Not good for the plant," she says. Examining the wire deer in progress, she frowns. "So," she says, eyeing it. "Ear? Bad shape. Have to change it later."

Of the topiaries that are too far away to visit, she wonders what happens to them after they leave her nursery. She mailed a large buck to another state, but it was so big she had to send it in pieces—torso, legs, neck, head. She can't recall if she included assembly instructions. "Sometimes, I think, how they did it," she says.

While the city sprung up and sprawled around it, Fujiyama Nursery has kept its basic footprint. Higashi remembers when there were no man-made structures around to impede the view. "Empty over here," she says, sweeping her arm westward toward suburban tract homes, offices and minimalls. "All farmer. No building. No freeway. You can see the mountains."

Her husband came out first from Japan. Two years later, she quit her job as a hospital assistant and followed him. By then the nursery was already in place. "I didn't speak English. I didn't know about plant," she recalls. "I just read a book. Customer asking, but I don't know."

She liked Walnut, though. The city's quietness and wide-open spaces suited her. "Because in Osaka, too many people," she murmurs.

When she dies, her topiary art likely will die with her. Her three daughters are all working professionals now. None is interested in bushes shaped like animals.

The deer is mostly finished. She trims the body and sets it down on the floor. "Oh-kay! I gonna make the head now," she says. She bends a smaller wire sheet into a cylinder, twists it shut, hangs it on a nail hammered into the door frame, and tugs. The cylinder stretches into a graceful cone. Higashi will make a giraffe next, she decides.

"Now, I not a good business lady. But plants, I like. It's a very hard work for me. But I'm lucky, I'm thinking every day." She squeezes the cone, narrowing it into a snout.

She doesn't know why her husband chose to go into plants. Higashi never did like being a business owner. In her youth, she'd hoped to be a housewife. "But if my husband wanted to do something, I had to help him. Now he's gone, and I still have to do it." She laughs. "That's life, huh?"


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