For the Equestrian trend so popular this autumn (and every autumn, for that matter), Mimi Xu thought of Pachelbel’s “Canon & Gigue In D major.” I’m thinking of the genus Aesculus, also known as the horse chestnut tree.
The Telegraph’s superb Gardening section recently published a gallery entitled "20 of the World’s Most Beautiful Trees," and Aesculus deservedly earned a place at number 13 (lucky for some, apparently). Horse chestnut's showy white and red-tinged flowers appear in late spring and early summer in panicles, which is a swish botanical term meaning “loose conical-shaped flower clusters.” It can be grown in sun or partial shade, but it doesn’t like scorching heat and it does need fairly rich, fertile soil. In the US, it’s hardy from zones 5 through 9. In the UK, you’ll be far more interested to know that it produces conkers and is thus central to an autumn ritual beloved of British children and the competitive young-at-heart.
Weigela ‘Dark Horse’ is a shrub with fragrant and abundant, deep pink spring flowers and dark burgundy foliage (oxblood! Another fall trend). Weigela is low maintenance and attracts hummingbirds, reaching a maximum of 6’ in height. The late and magnificent Christopher Lloyd grew a cultivar of Weigela (‘Florida Variegata’, but for our purposes ‘Dark Horse’ can be used interchangeably) at his home Great Dixter in Sussex. At its foot he planted Cyclamen hederifolium, which shows its dainty and variegated foliage in winter when the deciduous weigela is not in leaf. (I plant C. hederifolium at the foot of my camellias, also on Christopher Lloyd’s advice.)
Lloyd was incomparably brave and masterful at mixing colour. In spring at Great Dixter, alongside the weigela bloom pale blue Camassia cusickii and forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvestris), purple Allium “Globemaster,” and vivid orange Siberian wallflower (Erysimum x marshallii). In summer, the blue-green foliage of Canna glauca creates a deep, moody foil.
Another horsey plant that doesn’t necessarily bear mentioning is Equisetum (from the Latin equus), or horsetail. Full disclosure: I spent the first six months of life in our new home violently ripping it out of our garden. Apparently the former owner brewed it into tea? Disgusting. And invasive! (The plant, not the tea.) However, equisetum has its place (firmly in a container) and can be extremely effective in a modern design, as in this gorgeous and clean design from Clint Horticulture in Texas.
Equisetum needs moisture to grow and can actually be grown in a pot underwater, but moist soil will suffice. The most fascinating aspect of this plant is that it has been flourishing on earth since prehistoric times; perhaps the fact that it survived what the dinosaurs didn't should give a clear insight into its vigor.
And now for a very weird plant – and we really are veering far from the glossy pages of Vogue here – Helicodiceros muscivorus, or Dead Horse Arum, also known as Pig Butt Arum. This is more of a Fall Must Not than a Must, but it is nothing if not unique.
The only glamorous and appealing thing to be said about Helicodiceros is that it is native to the Balearics, Corsica and Sardinia. Beyond that, the plant is fascinating but repellant; Plant Delights Nursery likens its image and fragrance to “the backside of a flatulent pig.” The plant is 1’ tall and the flower bud is tan with purple speckles. Its Mediterranean island roots make sense when considering its pollination strategy: on the first day of blooming, the female flowers are receptive to pollinators, and their fragrance resembles rotting shellfish. Once insects become trapped inside the flower, the female flowers become inactive and the male flowers become fertile. They dust the trapped insects with pollen and then release them, in the hopes that another Dead Horse Arum will trap them and cross-pollinate.
This has all become far too gruesome, so let’s head back to the chic of equestrianism. In fashion terms the go-tos are Gucci and Hermès, but Stella McCartney is also known for her equine roots and references. At her Los Angeles store, Jon Goldstein of Jonny Appleseed Landscape installed an iron horse topiary amid the boutique’s white roses and pastel blooms.
According to the Daily Mail, Lana del Rey also recently bought one for her Beverly Hills garden. At over $2000, perhaps a giant topiary isn’t the cheapest way to nod at the trend; having said that, both topiary and equestrianism date back to antiquity and in design terms are the epitome of preppy, classic Jackie Kennedy chic.
In 2010 Christian Liaigre, whom The Wall Street Journal Magazine recently called “The Grand Minimalist,” designed a lounge chair for the Great Outdoors collection at Holly Hunt. Liaigre is best known as the interior designer of the Mercer Hotel, but his career began as a horse breeder in the Vendée. The chair, called the St Bart’s Ile de Ré, is teak, a rainforest hardwood often used for outdoor furniture because of its unsurprising ability to withstand the elements. The chair has a curved back, sturdy frame and back legs seemingly poised on the brink of a canter.
For the ultimate in classic, patrician, equestrian chic, however, let’s look to Sag Harbor and the home of Joe Petrocik and Myron Clement, featured in the October 2001 issue of Garden Design. Friends and hosts of Truman Capote amongst myriad other members of the New York glitterati, Petrocik and Clement in their own words “…discovered that [they] needed an escape from their escape.” Relief arrived in the form of a glasshouse spotted at the Hampton Classic Horse Show and designed by former solar engineer Andrew Caskie. Numerous edits were made to the original design – including a hole cut into the floor for one of the many existing trees – but Petrocik, Clement and Caskie eventually arrived at a steeply roofed cedar and glass house fronted with French doors and overlooking a pond.
And, in what can only be called a serendipitous flash of equestrian synchronicity, parked in the driveway of Petrocik and Clement’s Hamptons home? Truman Capote’s cherry-red ’68 Mustang.