Horticulture Highlight: Boxwood, Buxus sp.

February 1, 2016

I leave the formal garden of schedules

where hours hedge me, clip the errant sprigs

of thought, and day after day, a boxwood

topiary hunt chases a green fox

never caught…

                -Mary Makofske

The genus Buxus is comprised of over 60 species native to temperate, subtropical and tropical regions of the world. The Common Boxwood, Buxus sempervirens that most of us know is a dense, multibranched evergreen shrub of varying sizes, native to southern Europe/northern Africa. This is a plant that has long been used as elegant garden specimens, hedges, as well as for topiary. It’s opposite, simple leaves are ½-inch to 1-inch-long, dark green above, often lustrous, light green on their underside.

24665329611_442b766273_o

…the light is disturbed by

the boxwood leaves

shining

rosemary

green…

 -Robin Blaser

Tracing back for millennia we refer to Roy Strong’s A Celebration of Gardens where he quotes ancient Roman lawyer, author, Pliny the Younger (AD 61-112) describing his garden in Tuscany, “…In the front of the portico is a sort of terrace,…bounded with a box-hedge, from whence you descend by an easy slope, adorned with the representation of divers animals in box, answering alternately to each other,…In one place you have a little meadow, in another the box is cut into …letters expressing the name of the master; sometimes that of the artificer; whilst here and there little obelisks rise, intermixed alternately with the fruit trees:…”

Later after the Middle Ages, during the English 16th Century, pleasure gardens using plants primarily grown for ornament, again began to proliferate. In some of these, part of the garden was laid out in the form of a maze or labyrinth, often of boxwood hedge or evergreen herbs. A frequent child’s (and adult’s) pastime was working through the maze. The indomitable, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) incorporated this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Titania (Act II., Scene I.) laments an overgrown, unused maze:

“..And the quaint mazes in the wanton green

For lack of tread are undistinguishable…”

Also metaphorically in The Tempest (Act V., Scene I.), Shakespeare has Alonso say:

“… This is as strange a maze as e’er man trod:

And there is in this business more than nature

Was ever conduct of…”

24390376599_21ab5bf3e1_o

 Artistic images of boxwood mazes have continued through the centuries, with a current example by Marge Piercy:

I go round and round you sometimes, scouting,

blundering, seeking a way in, the high boxwood

maze I penetrate running lungs bursting

toward the fountain of green fire at the heart….

Buxus microphylla Habit

It is believed that Boxwood arrived in the United States late in the 17th Century. One early documented use comes from Ann Leighton’s definitive book, American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century, where she recounts some of the 1737 correspondence of John Custis (1678-1749) writing about his “Dutch box edgings” within his 4-acre garden.  A member of the governor’s Council in the British Colony of Virginia, John Custis’ only surviving son Daniel (1711-1757) would marry Martha Dandridge (1731-1802), later the future Martha Washington. George Washington  (1732-1799) also documents planting boxwood before 1788, at Mount Vernon.

One other notable aspect of boxwood is its distinct fragrance, pleasant to many people, but heavy and overpowering to others.  Queen Anne (1665-1714), who notably unified England and Scotland into Great Britain in 1707, is trivially remembered by some for removing all of the formal boxwood plantings from the garden at Hampton Court because of its scent.

…And she passes slowly,

Beneath the boxwoods’ scented leaves;

Her spirit is holy,

And her dear heart grieves,…

                -John Lars Zwerenz

24130690924_0f6b18d95b_o

…Come smell the green things growing.

The boxwood after rain;…

                -Margaret Lee Ashley

At Mount Auburn, in addition to the common boxwood, we also grow several cultivated varieties of Littleleaf Boxwood, Buxus microphylla, which is native to Japan. Along with other cultivated varieties of hybrids between Common and Littleleaf boxwoods, there are over 120 identified boxwoods in our most recent plant inventory.

Buxus microphylla leaves

With such a long, noble history of horticultural use, we close with a cautionary note. In 2011 a fungal caused Boxwood Blight was identified in North Carolina, Connecticut, Virginia, Rhode Island, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon and New York. This blight had first been identified in Great Britain in the mid-1990s, and was found in New Zealand in 2002. Our horticulture staff has been monitoring our boxwood, and we are still free of this problem.

…The little white dog on the Victor label

Listens long and hard as he is able….

…When he surmises

Through one of Bach’s eternal boxwood mazes

The oboe pungent as a bitch in heat,…

                – James Merrill

~

About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant

View all posts by Jim Gorman →

One Comment

  1. Douglas Field says:

    Very informative essay Jim. I didn’t realize that the cultivation of the boxwood went so far back in history. Also nice heads up regarding the blight. I wasn’t aware of that and this prompts me to do further reading.

    Regards,
    Douglas Field

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *