Box

Common box
Buxus sempervirens

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Common box belongs to the genus Buxus and is a member of the Box family (Buxaceae).

Common box (Buxus sempervirens) is an evergreen tree growing to 6m and flowering April to May.

Lifespan: Box can live for many hundreds of years.

 

Characteristics

Bark is smooth and grey, becoming fissured with age. Growth is compact, dense and spreading with green, angled, downy stems. Leaves are opposite on short stalks, oval with blunt tips 10–25mm long, shiny, leathery and dark green.

Common box is monoecious: both male and female flowers are found on the same tree. Flowers are green and grow in clusters in the leaf axils. Each cluster contains several male flowers with conspicuous whitish-yellow anthers and a terminal female flower containing a three-celled ovary.

Female flowers develop into a green, dry capsule and ripen to a brown, woody case which splits into three segments; each segment releasing two black seeds. Box is wind pollinated.

Box tree
Box flowers

Distribution

Native to mainland Europe and the UK, mainly in southern England on well-drained calcareous soils. Found on hillsides, in woodland or scrub. It is a rare tree but where it is found it can be locally abundant.

The best known population is found on Box Hill in Surrey.

It is widely planted elsewhere as an ornamental tree, as hedging or for topiary and there are numerous cultivated forms for such use.

Human value

The timber of common box is light yellow with a greyish hue, very fine textured and extremely hard and stable. The wood is so heavy it can sink under water when green.

Widely used in turnery, it can be used for precision work such as wood engraving, scales for scientific instruments, violin pegs and musical instruments.

The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote of the use of box in ornamental topiary with it being clipped into the figures of animals.

All parts of the box tree are toxic and may irritate the skin or cause a stomach upset if ingested.

Box leaves
Box fruit

Wildlife value

Box is particularly favoured by bees as a pollen source and provides a dense, sheltered year-round microclimate for small birds, mammals and insects.

Box is a rare understorey species in the wild and is nationally scarce. It sometimes forms part of the shrub layer in lowland beech and yew woodland which is a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Management

Box is slow growing and can take between 30 and 50 years to reach its full height. It can tolerate a wide range of soils, from neutral through to acidic and from clays to sands, provided they are well-drained.

As a shade tolerant shrub it does best on sheltered or shady sites as the leaves can be prone to sun scorch.

Common box propagates well from semi-hardwood cuttings or from seed.

It can be susceptible to box blight; a fungal disease that causes dieback (Cylindrocladium buxicola and Volutella buxi). It can also be affected by box sucker – a sap-sucking plant louse that causes stunted spring growth.

Box

Illustrations © Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.
Photographs © Forestry Commission