James H. Schutte
Plant Common Name
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The woody plants in the genus Buxus are renowned the world over as meticulously manicured hedges or topiaries in gardens. This group of plants comprises nearly 100 species of shrubs to very small trees with broadleaf evergreen foliage. They are native to woodlands and rocky hillsides in Central America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
The glossy green leaves are small ovals and occur in opposite pairs on the branches (a feature that quickly distinguishes boxwoods from similar-looking small hollies). The youngest twigs on boxwoods are also four-sided. Boxwood or "box" produces its small, inconspicuous flowers at branch tips or at the bases of leaves. Blooming season is anytime from late winter to early summer. The off-scented flowers are either male or female, occurring on the same plant. Male blossoms have four petal-like tepals and little pollen-shedding anthers, while female flowers have five or six tepals around a three-chambered stigma with three-lobed style. After insect pollination, boxwood flowers develop into dry capsules that split open to reveal three chambers. Glossy black seeds are shed from these chambers.
Boxwoods grow well in any fertile, well-drained soil that is not alkaline. Although tolerant of full sun exposures, too much sun coupled with dry soil leads to dull foliage color or leaf scorching. Cold, dry winds in winter also can lead to dieback, especially in regions where the boxwood species is marginally hardy. Prune out deadwood in mid-spring; trim boxwoods to shape immediately after flowering (unless you want fruits and seeds). Boxwoods also tolerate occasional hard rejuvenation pruning if done in late spring.
Boxwoods have become a staple for informal garden designs as they remain lush and green year round and tolerate clipping. Numerous cultivars of many popular species are on the market, varying in foliage color - including some with variegation - or winter hardiness. The common boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) has origins in Europe and northern Africa and includes modern selections such as 'Welleri', 'Vardar Valley' and 'Newport Blue'. Other more cold-hardy species are the Korean box (B. sinica) and Japanese box (B. microphylla). There also are hybrids, such as 'Green Mountain' and 'Glencoe'.
Boxwoods are still widely used in gardens as edging, hedges and topiaries. Massed plantings work on rocky hillsides and dwarf cultivars may be well-suited to rock gardens, containers or as groundcovers. The sap of boxwoods may cause skin irritation.