The Espalier Trees at The Cloisters

Espalier pear tree in the Bonnefont Courtyard at the Cloisters


I visited The Cloisters this past week, which is the branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art that focuses on medieval art and architecture, with a focus on the Romanesque and Gothic periods. I enjoyed seeing all of the art, architecture, and artifacts, but when I stepped out into the “Bonnefont Garden Courtyard,” I saw this and was quite intriqued:

An espalier tree at the Cloisters Bonnefont Courtyard
An espalier tree at the Cloisters in the Bonnefont Courtyard.

The way this tree has been manipulated to grow in such a perfect and uniform manner had me amazed – I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s so … perfect! I was very curious as to what this was, or why it was grown this way, so I came home and did some research and learned that it’s referred to as the art of “espalier,” which is the practice of controlling plant branch growth for the production of fruit, by pruning and tying branches to a frame. The plants (or, in this specific case, a pear tree) are frequently shaped in formal patterns, flat against a structure such as a wall. I learned there’s actually a practical benefit to this: the heat and light that radiate from the wall help to ripen the fruit!

There were actually two espalier trees in this courtyard, the second (and older) one is seen below left, with a wider courtyard view below right. The younger tree pictured above is positioned to the right of the older tree, although it’s hard to see since it’s in the shadows of this picture below (it’s to the right of the person with the red jacket).

Espalier pear tree in the Bonnefont Courtyard at the Cloisters
A view of an espaliered pear tree and the Bonnefont Courtyard at The Cloisters.

Granted, I was visiting this location in January, so all of the plantings were dormant for the winter, but I think I’ll need to go back in the spring or summer months, as this particular courtyard has a garden laid out in nineteen beds organized by how the plants were used in the Middle Ages. For instance, there is a bed of herbs and vegetables used in medieval cooking and a bed of plants used by medieval artists for dyes, paints, and inks. When in season, there are reportedly 250-300 kinds of plants in this courtyard garden alone! And the older pear tree pictured above has been there since the 1940s, according to The Met.

One might assume that the branch structure being dictated like this both maximizes the space being used as well as making the fruit easier to pick once it has ripened. What a nice surprise to get a little history lesson and learn something new from a stroll in a courtyard garden!

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