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The Box Tree { Study of Trees -8}

Updated on August 9, 2015

Box trees in their natural habitat



In this series of articles it is intended to assist anyone who is not familiar with the identification of trees, to pick up a few tips, that will further their knowledge and make identifying trees a little easier.

Many people begin their identification process by the form and colour of the foliage,which is fine during the summer months but of little use in the case of deciduous trees, during the winter months when the branches are naked and bare. yet every tree has a characteristic{s} that will help the observant to identify a tree species even in the depths of winter.

In this the eight in the series we review the Box tree, Buxus sempervirens, which is a member of the large and mainly acridly poisonous order of trees known as the Buxales. It is placed in th family Buxaceae within that order. It was formerly placed in the family Euphorbiaceae {spurges}.

The genus Buxus, of which our British species is one of the best known,representatives which includes about twenty five species of evergreen shrubs or small trees. Because they are evergreen this is a species where one can be aided with identification through out the year by the foliage. In its familiar dwarf state { Kept low and trimmed for ornamental use} it is a mere shrub,but, when left to grow freely as nature intended it becomes a small tree twelve to fifteen feet tall.

The juice {sap} is not milky like those of the allied spurges.

Box in its natural state


Young growth


Background information

Buxaceae have a wide distribution throughout the warmer temperate zones. Buxus sempervirens the species under review occurs in Japan, in the western Himalayas,in northern and western Asia,in North Africa and as far north as Belgium.

In its wild state in the UK it is seldom more than 12-15 feet high,however, in Turkey and Asia minor and according to records, even in the Jardindes Plantes at Paris,trees thirty feet high and ten inches in diameter are recorded.

Boulger,'Familiar Trees' 1907,states that these trees must be at least one hundred years old. As the box is a slow growing plant,rarely making shoots of more than six to eight inches within a year, and not increasing in diameter more than an inch in ten years. The tree is not only long lived,but is also hardy and is the only evergreen {in the genus} that is able to withstand the cold continental open air without need for protection.

The Romans employed the Box both when growing for 'topiary' work, and as timber. Both Pliny and Vitruvius allude to the clipping of the shrub into hedges as ornamental with figures of animals,whilst Virgil and Ovid refer as to the use of its wood for musical instruments indicating that the word Buxus as meaning a flute. It may therefore well be to the Romans that we owe the introduction of the tree here in England. Sprigs of box have been found among Roman remains at Silchester.

Virgil wrote { after translation}--

" Smooth-grained,and proper for the turner's trade,

Which curious hands, may carve,and steal with ease invade"

Although Buxus sempervirens has been used in herbal medicine in days gone by it is a poisonous plant. The specific name sempervirens indicates long-lived. According to the excellent web site 'the poisonous', it contains the alkaloid Buxine which causes nausea,vomiting and diarrhoea. The leaves are poisonous to humans but its unpleasant odour and bitter taste tends to minimize its ingestion--- contact with the skin can cause rashes and clippings should be handled with care"

Box-blight is a fungal disease is currently causing problems in Europe and here in the UK. If the tree ,hedge or ornamental is affected, there is little choice but to take them out and burn them.

Components of Buxus sempervirens




Description of Box. Twigs and foliage.

The young branches, which have generally an upward direction, are downy,and have a smooth yellowish bark, but the older trunks are rough and of a greyish colour. The twigs and buds are very small. The leaves vary in shape from ovate to oblong,ie, they may be wider across the lower third of their length or may have parallel sides. They are borne on very short stalks,edged with two lines of minute hairs {a hand lens may assist you to see these}. They vary in length from half an inch+ , their tips are rounded or slightly notched. The colour of the foliage depends considerably on their age and position.

When young they are a bright green-grass colour,and at this stage they were once employed as home and church decorations in days gone by. The colour changes if the box is grown in the shade,or when the tree gets older, they then become a very dark shade of green which has been referred as looking sombre. They grow opposite to each other along the stem.

Box foliage


The small inconspicuous flowers of Box


The flowers

The minute pale-coloured florets appear in April or May on Box left to its own devices as opposed to being trimmed into shape. They form spike-lets of unstalked blossoms in the axils of the leaves. The arrangement is that a terminal female flower is surrounded by a number of male flowers.

In addition to the tiny bracts,each flower is surrounded by a calyx which in the staminate flowers { a flower that lacks pistils is said to be staminate,or a male flower that lacks stamens is said to be pistillate or female}, consisting of two alternating pairs of sepals,and in the pistillate flowers commonly six,nine or twelve ,in alternating whorls of three.

The filaments of the stamens are comparatively long,so that the pollen is very probably carried from the extruding anthers by the wind. The ovary ripens into a dry capsule about half an inch long,surmounted by the horn-like remains of the three styles,and when mature the seed capsules explosively split into three valves,each formed of two half carpels,so that each of the stylar horns split length ways.

There are two black seeds in each chamber of the ovary,which are hurled to some little distance.

This species should not be confused with the American boxwood of the family Cornaceae.



Green fruits follow the flowers


Box in a pot

Box can be kept low clipped into shape and make a good ornamental evergreen structure.
Box can be kept low clipped into shape and make a good ornamental evergreen structure. | Source

Box and the gardener

As far as the gardener is concerned there are various species of Buxus that can be utilized for hedging, pots and containers. They are very tolerant of close clipping and thus are greatly used for topiary work. Caring for the box plant is dependent of many things for example are they in a border, a pot , a container, are they in the sun or shade.

When in pots {they are very suitable plants for pots and containers}, they are fully reliant on their owner to provide them with water and required nutrients to keep them in good health. Even in large pots and containers they will still need watering and to be fed with nutrients so that they will flourish.

Even in the border they will need watering and to be fed nutrients until they become well established. The best time of the year to prune box hedging is in the last week of May or the first week of June. The new growth will reveal itself by being a much lighter green than the old growth produces. It is recommended that the new leaves should be allowed to acquire a slight leathery texture before they are pruned.

Two of these many varieties are Buxux sempervirens variegata and Buxus sempervirens argenteovariegata.

B.sempervirens 'argenteovariegata' one of the many varieties available to the gardener.



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, yes they are excellent for topiary. they are very slow growing but last for a very long time. They are also excellent for trimming into globe shapes or pyramid shapes when in pots.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I take it that it does well for topiary. Do you know how quickly it grows? Just curious.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello Devika, Thank you,once again for kind and encouraging words which always inspire. Thank you too for all the votes which are so appreciated. Have a great day. Best wishes to you.


      Hi, it is unusual if the species is not available to the gardener at nurseries over there for they are very popular as ornamentals. However in their dwarf pruned state they would hardly be recognizable as the tree that nature intended. Thank you for your visit and for taking the time to comment.Best wishes to you.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I cannot translate this tree into one we have here. It must be averse to desert climate.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      A lovely tree! It has such beautiful flowers and your hubs are always interesting. I can trust to read more from about nature and its great wonders. Voted up, interesting useful and beautiful.


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