The Leyland Cypress

Frequently used as a natural fence between neighbors, the Leyland Cypress has become a point of contention and a status of class in suburban England.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

The story of the Leyland cypress turns on the peculiarly English preoccupations with privacy, gardening and, of course, class. In the nineteenth century, when British plant hunters brought back the hardy yellow cedar from Oregon and the faster-growing but more feeble Monterey cypress from California, they had no idea of the mayhem they would cause more than 100 years later. These conifers are not closely related, and in their native habitats, 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) apart, they would never have hybridized. In mid-Wales, however, they were planted close together and managed to breed. The monster offspring is popularly called Leylandii after Christopher Leyland, who owned the estate where the fateful mating occurred.

Slim, upright and resistant to both salt spray and pollution, Leylandii is alarmingly vigorous – able to leap more than 1 metre (3 feet) a year, often to a height of 35 metres (115 feet) or more. Planted in a row, the trees quickly form an oppressively dense, dark-green wall. But it wasn’t until the late 1970s, when garden centres became widespread and improved propagation techniques enabled Leylandii to be mass-produced reliably from cuttings, that the tree became available to all. And that’s when the trouble started.

Illustration by Lucille Clerc

In the English suburbs, where people live close together yet have private gardens, prying neighbours and being overlooked are obsessions. But the UK has planning laws that limit the height of man-made fences between properties to 2 metres (6-1/2 feet). What the paranoid suburban householder needed was a living fence that would be beyond the scope of regulation and which would grow at breakneck speed into an immensely tall, impenetrable screen. Leylandii perfectly fi lled that gap in the hedge market, and over the next 20 years it became the go-to solution for anyone seeking seclusion. By the early 1990s, half of all trees being planted by the English public were Leylandii.

Instant privacy came at a price, however. Neighbours discovered that precious little would survive in gardens overshadowed and acidified by Leylandii. The angry occupants of lower fl oors complained of perpetual twilight and obstructed views. Adding insult to injury, Leylandii was regarded suspiciously by ‘proper gardeners’ and the upmarket press as a vulgar tool of incomers and the nouveau riche, fuelling a feud among the class-conscious.



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