Boxwood: Getting to Know a Familiar Plant

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Ann Bowe

Boxwood are everywhere in the Lexington landscape. Nonetheless, I’ll bet you haven’t been properly introduced. What do you really know about this familiar neighbor?

First off, you might not have your neighbor’s name quite right. Boxwood refers to both a singular shrub or a bunch of them. There is no such word as “boxwoods,” though I, and probably you, have been known to add that pluralization. They are so named because the young stems of some species of boxwood are four-sided and thus are square in cross-section, like a box.

As traditional as these plants have become, they actually originated from other parts of the world, such as Japan, southern Europe, northern Africa and western Asia. Fossilized boxwood plants date back more than 22 million years. In the first century B.C., wealthy Greeks and Romans landscaped their villas with boxwood topiaries and used the wood for utensils, tablets and ornaments. Nathaniel Sylvester, the earliest European settler of Shelter Island, N.Y., planted the first boxwood in the U.S. on his plantation in about 1653.

Now, before you invite them to your home, you might want to know more about their dietary preferences. Boxwood do not like compacted or poorly drained soil. They will grow in a wide variety of soil types as long as the pH is alkaline or slightly acidic, say 6.5 to 7.2.

Boxwood will take full sun to partial shade and are quite drought tolerant once established. However, they have very shallow roots and so mulching is important, both to protect the roots and to maintain soil moisture. Don’t mulch too deeply, just an inch or two is fine, and keep the mulch away from the stems.

While boxwood, treated properly, can be a tough shrub, overwatering and over fertilizing stresses them, as can improper pruning. Too much stress will weaken any plant, making it vulnerable to insects and disease. Boxwood are prone to leaf miners, mites and psyllids, and to various fungal diseases.

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