The Language of Home


More than a trellis, not quite a bower, the pergola is somewhere in between

By Noah Salt

Picture of beauty garden with modern gazebo

pergola is a garden feature forming a shaded walkway, passageway, or sitting area of vertical posts or pillars that usually support cross-beams and a sturdy open lattice, often upon which woody vines are trained.

It is a structure usually consisting of parallel colonnades supporting an open roof of girders and cross rafters; sometimes (mistakenly) it is called an arbor or a trellis.

The best pergolas seem to echo the design of classical Greek and Roman architecture, modest temples meant to link man to over-arching nature, not surprising given that the origin of the word is from late Latin, referring to a projected or extended eave. The common English usage reportedly derives from Italian, mentioned in1645 by John Evelyn, a rival diarist to London’s Samuel Pepys, at the cloister of Trinità y dei Monti in Rome. Evelyn supposedly introduced the word in the English context in 1654 when, in the company of the Fifth Earl of Pembroke, he watched the coursing of hares from a “pergola” built on the downs near Salisbury. Evelyn is best known for his vast knowledge of trees, a serious gardener who penned the first known book on the air pollution problems of London in 1664. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, he presented a rival plan to that of Christopher Wren for the rebuilding of the city, but it was rejected as “too complex” by Charles II.

Owing to the naturalistic movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, pergolas and other artificial garden structures fell out of fashion for a time until Sir Edward Lytens and Gertrude Jekyll introduced lavishly planted pergolas at Kew and other notable formal British gardens. Their shaded pathways in formal gardens illustrated the versatility of pergolas, triggered a popularity that has never waned.

During the height of our intense Southern summers, a leafy pergola overgrown with jasmine or Lady Banks roses can provide a welcome respite from the heat, a fine place to pause and sit for a spell under arches of green or beside a pool of water, or simply an excellent avenue into the heart of a summer garden.

In our many travels through other people’s gardens, we’ve seen miniature Greek temples wreathed with everything from scuppernong grapes to ancient wisteria vines, an architectural element that done well seems to naturally project the life of a house into the garden. A casual stroll through “pergolas” on Pinterest illustrates how a smartly an integrated pergola can add the softening grace of nature, whereas a boxy, cheaply kitted-out affair looks a bit like a child’s unfinished toy, pointlessly attached to the patio.

A beautiful pergola takes its own sweet time to reach proper flowering is the message — reminding us that life may be busy, but nature simply cannot be rushed.   h

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