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Grape Arbors and How They Differ From Pergolas

Plus the Connection Between National Arbor Day and Arbors


photo of a grape arbor

Picture of a grape arbor.

David Beaulieu

You've probably heard of "National Arbor Day," and perhaps you've wondered what that holiday has to do with the garden, or "grape" arbors we began discussing on Page 1. Arbor Day history (or "Arbour," to use the British spelling) goes back to the 19th century. It begins with a man named J. Sterling Morton and is a holiday on which trees are honored. People plant trees on this day to celebrate the importance of trees to human life. Arbor Day history is thus part of the modern movement towards awareness that we may need to cultivate "nature" a bit in order to preserve it.

What of the linguistic origin behind National Arbor Day? Well, arbor is the Latin word for "tree." But the word that denotes the trellising structures we've been discussing, such as grape arbors, has a different origin. It derives from the Old French erbier, meaning "garden." Is there a connection between grape arbors and trees? Well, "arbor" first and foremost signifies a leafy, shady recess formed by tree branches, shrubs, etc. Only secondarily is it defined as "a latticework bower intertwined with climbing vines and flowers." Clearly, then, there is a connection: our grape arbors (i.e., "latticework bowers") have been developed out of a need to find stand-ins for shade-giving trees in our gardens. The coincidental similarity in spelling between the Latin word and the French word led writers of English to exploit the connection and use "arbor" as the spelling for the trellising structures that grace our gardens.

Despite this connection between National Arbor Day and their trellising namesakes, National Arbor Day is purely a tree holiday. If you want to celebrate Arbor Day history and do your part, then plant a tree; save your plans for building a grape arbor for another day.

The official Arbor Day Web site relates Arbor Day history in greater detail. According to this site, it was on January 4, 1872 that J. Sterling Morton first proposed a tree-planting holiday. The proposal was made in Nebraska, which at the time was more or less a tree-less state. Morton's proposal was adopted, and the idea of observing such a holiday spread to other states later in the 1870s. States today most commonly observe National Arbor Day on the last Friday in April. The observance of National Arbor Day has even spread beyond the borders of the U.S.

Grape Arbors, Privacy Screens, Entrances

The trellising structures we've been discussing have many uses. For instance, there are the classic grape arbors, in which case the structure has a horticultural function -- serving as a trellis for a crop. Specifically grape arbors come to mind for this use due to their historical prevalence.

But such structures -- in conjunction with the vines that grow on them -- can also serve as privacy screens. Another function is to provide shade, including on decks and patios. More often, they have primarily an aesthetic purpose. Some landscapers like the look of a wooden archway that forms an entrance to a garden. Indeed, the arched arbor is perhaps the most popular style, currently. For instance, they can function as entry gates for properties surrounded by fencing.

If you are interested in building an arbor of your own and missed the beginning of this article, you can return to my tutorial. If you'd prefer to buy an arbor instead, please refer to wood structures.

Trellises and Pergolas

Two related structures are the " pergola" and the simple trellis. Any structure designed specifically to support vines is often called a trellis now, although the trellis traditionally was a latticework structure. Trellises can be very simple, nearly two-dimensional structures and are often either driven into the ground (freestanding) or laid against a house or outbuilding.

"Pergola" is more difficult to define. In some circles, it may be just a fancy way of saying, "arbor." Oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, it may help to focus on the fact that the word, pergola is Italian. Renaissance Italy loved its pergolas, which were essentially grape arbors with masonry columns, rather than wooden posts.

But this distinction, based on whether the supports are wooden or masonry, is breaking down now, as people use the term "pergola" more loosely. If there's any distinction at all that is still maintained, perhaps it is that pergolas are structures of somewhat more substantial architecture. Others claim that the roof of an "arbor" is arched, while that of a pergola is flat.

Be that as it may, I'll say this much: if you're invited to a party at a house with a pergola, you're more likely to be served sherry than plain old wine, as you engage in a genteel chat about Arbor Day history....

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