Common box, European box, or boxwood – Buxus sempervirens

Trees & Shrubs – Box – Buxus sempervirens

Buxus is a genus of about 70 species in the family Buxaceae. Common names include box  in the majority of English-speaking countries.

Buxus sempervirenscommon box, European box, or boxwood. Commonly found as a box hedge in many London gardens.

Buxus sempervirens is an evergreen shrub or small tree growing to 1–9 m (3 ft 3 in–29 ft 6 in) tall, with a trunk up to 20 centimetres (7.9 in) in diameter (exceptionally to 10 m tall and 45 cm diameter). Arranged in opposite pairs along the stems, the leaves are green to yellow-green, oval, 1.5–3 cm long, and 0.5–1.3 cm broad. The hermaphrodite flowers are inconspicuous but highly scented, greenish-yellow, with no petals, and are insect pollinated; the fruit is a three-lobed capsule containing 3-6 seeds.

The species typically grows on soils derived from chalk, limestone, usually as an understorey in forests of larger trees, most commonly associated with Fagus sylvatica forests, but also sometimes in open dry montane scrub, particularly in the Mediterranean region. Box Hill, Surrey is named after its notable box population, which comprises the largest area of native box woodland in England.

In Britain, three burials of the Roman era featured coffins lined with sprays of the evergreen box, a practice unattested elsewhere in Europe.

Box remains a very popular ornamental plant in gardens, being particularly valued for topiary and hedges because of its small leaves, evergreen nature, tolerance of close shearing, and scented foliage. The scent is not to everyone’s liking: the herbalist John Gerard found it “evill and lothsome” and at Hampton Court Palace Queen Anne had box hedging grubbed up because the odor was offensive, Daniel Defoe tells.

Several cultivars have been selected, including ‘Argenteo-variegata’ and ‘Marginata’ with variegated foliage; such “gilded box” received a first notice in John Parkinson’s Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629). ‘Vardar Valley’, a slow-growing particularly hardy semi-dwarf cultivar, was selected in 1935 by the American botanist Edward Anderson in the upper Vardar valley and sent to the Arnold Arboretum for evaluation.

The following varieties and cultivars have gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit:-

  • B. sempervirens ‘Elegantissima’
  • B. sempervirens ‘Latifolia Maculata’

Slow growth of box renders the wood (“boxwood”) very hard (possibly the hardest in Europe) and heavy, and free of grain produced by growth rings, making it ideal for cabinet-making, the crafting of clarinets, engraving, marquetry, woodturning, tool handles, mallet heads and as a substitute for ivory. The noted English engraver Thomas Bewick pioneered the use of boxwood blocks for engraving.

Boxwood blight (also known as box blight or boxwood leaf drop) is a disease of boxwoods caused by the fungus Cylindrocladium buxicola (also called C. pseudonaviculatum). The first description of boxwood blight was from the United Kingdom in the mid 1990s.

There are a number of steps that can be taken to prevent the spread of the blight:

  • Inspect new plants and cuttings; only buy from reputable nurseries.
  • Isolate them for at least one month, longer if possible.
  • Avoid overhead watering.
  • Don’t work with wet boxwood.
  • Never compost infected material.
  • If you see an infected plant:
    • Remove the whole plant and put it in a plastic bag. Do not carry it around uninfected plants.
    • Consult with a county agent or other expert to confirm the diagnosis.
  • Consider plants other than boxwood.

There is no known cure. Fungicides may prevent the spread of the disease. To be effective, they must be applied to the entire plant, leaves and stems. This can be difficult because boxwood leaves are very closely spaced.