We see them everywhere — as low or tall hedges, topiary specimens or in stylish containers gracing the entrances to some of the world’s most elegant hotels.
For centuries boxwoods have played an important role in gardens and landscapes. Used in old European parterres, they divided and framed stunning flower beds and were also used to create huge, meticulously pruned hedges and uniquely shaped garden features.
Native to many parts of the world, including southern England, northern Africa and Asia, historically boxwoods were reputed to offer a cure for epilepsy and toothaches.
Today, pharmacologists and herbalists agree that they have little, if any, medicinal value. Common boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) contains alkaloids, making it toxic to horses, cattle and pigs if consumed in larger quantities.
The name boxwood comes from the fact that the wood was used to make decorative boxes. The wood has also been utilized to manufacture musical instruments like flutes, and chess pieces have been made from boxwood because it is relatively easy to carve.
Today, boxwoods are still widely used as low border plants to accent driveways, sidewalks and garden beds. Many different varieties are available, but it is a little challenging, even for nursery folks, to distinguish between them.
Because of their versatility, resilience and size range (depending on the type, they can grow from two to 20 feet, or 60 cm to 6 m), members of the boxwood family will always be important elements of many gardens. Buxus are tolerant of full hot sun to partial shade, and once established, they are quite drought tolerant.
The most widely planted boxwoods are the more compact varieties that stay reasonably low and require a minimum amount of pruning. The well-known dwarf English variety, Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’ (zone 6), grows only two feet high by two feet wide (60 x 60 cm) and has been used for centuries for low borders and knot gardens. Its light green foliage matures to a glossy, deep green.
Buxus ‘Green Gem’ (zone 4) is a much hardier, low-growing (two feet by two feet, or 60 cm x 60 cm) variety. It has smaller, glossy leaves and grows into a nicely rounded form. Low-growing and mounding (two feet by two feet, or 60 cm x 60 cm), B. ‘Calgary’ (cold rated as zone 3) is perhaps one of the hardiest varieties.
A little taller at three feet by four feet wide, ‘Green Velvet’ (zone 5), with its bright, glossy leaves, is a great choice for two reasons: it has a broad mounding habit, and it takes well to shearing.
A lesser known variety in B.C., slow growing ‘Buxus koreana’ (zone 3), has quite small leaves, making it far more resilient in very cold temperatures. It can grow in areas where other varieties freeze.
A particularly attractive boxwood, ‘Green Beauty’ (zone 3) is very cold tolerant, and I love the fact that it holds its rich deep colour even in cold winters. It grows about three feet tall and three feet wide (90 cm x 90 cm).
A taller, narrower variety (five feet by three feet, or 152 cm x 90 cm), ‘Green Mountain’ (zone 4) is ideal for slightly higher hedges, and it takes well to pruning.
With lustrous, rich, deep green foliage, Buxus sempervirens (zone 4) is one of the oldest and best-known boxwoods. Growing rather quickly, it can reach 20 feet (6 m) in height. It is ideal for beautifully clipped garden specimens and is frequently topiaried into globes, pyramids and other enchanting shapes. It prefers moist growing conditions and does poorly in dry, alkaline soils.
There are many variegated forms of boxwood, mostly in a soft creamy yellow/green blend. Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’ (zone 5) is an excellent example of this coloration. Growing up to six feet (1.8 m) and often seen shaped into a narrow cone, it will add vibrancy to any garden.
Since small space gardens are today’s reality, more narrow forms of boxwood are becoming very popular. One of my favourites is B. ‘Graham Blandy’ (zone 6). Reaching up to 10 feet (3 m), its slender shape creates a stunning accent feature in both ground beds and containers. It also works well as a privacy barrier on a patio.
In terms of modern design, small, rounded varieties set atop tall, narrow containers is very much today’s ‘in’ look.
The unfortunate downside of boxwood is its susceptibility to boxwood blight (the fungus Cylindrocladium buxicola).
Although relatively rare in B.C., it can cause rapid defoliation and the ultimate death of the plant. It spreads rather quickly and can destroy whole hedges. Warm, wet conditions with temperatures between 18 deg. C and 24 deg. C (65 F to 75 F) create the optimal situation for spreading this fungus.
It can also be transmitted by water and by moving hedging shears from one infected plant to others. Use only a soaker hose when watering boxwoods and shear them on dry days when the temperature is below 18 deg. C (65 F).
One of the most at-risk varieties seems to be Buxus ‘Suffruticosa’, but others can be affected. The good news is that blight resistant varieties are currently in development and should be widely available within three to five years.
As trends and garden sizes change, boxwoods will continue to be one of the most versatile garden plants.
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