A spreading bush usually wider than it is high, or a small tree 15 to 20 (or even 30) ft high; young stems square, slightly winged, minutely hairy. Leaves ovate, oval or oblong, notched at the apex, 1⁄2 to 1 in. long, about half as wide (considerably larger in some of the garden forms); very dark green above, pale below; shining on both sides; stalk very short, minutely hairy. Flowers produced in April, pale green with yellow anthers; the staminate flowers bear a small rudimentary pistil about half as long as the sepals. Seed-vessel 1⁄3 in. long, with six beaks.
Native of Europe, N. Africa, and W. Asia, and very probably indigenous to Britain, although this is doubted by some authorities. The most famous site of naturally grown box trees in England is Box Hill, near Dorking; but several other place-names in England indicate a more extended habitat in former times. It has been stated that £10,000 worth of box timber was taken from Box Hill in 1815.
In gardens the box shares with the holly and the yew the distinction of being the most useful (as distinct from the most beautiful) of hardy evergreens. Some of the more pendulous forms make handsome lawn specimens, and the ordinary type makes an admirable shelter, or a screen for hiding unsightly objects, especially in half-shaded places. Its use for topiary work is well known, also for planting in formal arrangements, where it is kept low and flat by clipping. For the latter purpose 'Suffruticosa', used so extensively for 'box-edging', is also employed. The adaptability of the ordinary form to pruning makes it useful in positions where space is strictly limited, for it can be kept permanently about 6 ft in height by a judicious removal of prominent shoots, and this without rendering it unduly formal.
Like the holly and the yew, the box was in earlier times associated with certain festivals and ceremonies. The wood is of a hard, almost bony consistence, and before wood-engraving became an almost lost art, was a favourite medium for the purpose. Large quantities were formerly imported from S.E. Europe and Persia. Even now, so useful is the wood, the world's supply is not equal to the demand, and has been partly replaced by Venezuelan box (Gossipiospermum praecox), though this species too is becoming scarce owing to over-exploitation.
Of numerous named varieties cultivated in gardens, some of which scarcely differ from each other, only the most distinct and readily available are described here. For some of the additional information included in this revision we are indebted to An Account of the Cultivars of the Common Box Grown by Hillier and Sons, by C. R. Lancaster. This study has since been published (Gard. Chron., May 13, June 7 and 14, 1968).
cv. 'Argentea'. – Leaves with a white border of varying depth; habit dense. Also incorrectly known as “Argenteo-variegata”.
cv. 'Aurea Pendula'. – Secondary branches pendulous. Leaves margined with, or almost wholly yellow.
cv. 'Elegantissima'. – Leaves mostly smaller and narrower than in the type, some of them deformed, irregularly margined with creamy white; of neat, dense habit, to 6 ft high. Inclined to revert if closely and frequently clipped.
cv. 'Handsworthensis'. – Habit vigorous, densely bushy, but somewhat erect. Leaves large and broad. Originated in the Handsworth nursery of Fisher, Son and Sibray, before 1872.
cv. 'Latifolia Bullata'. – Leaves ovate to orbicular, larger than in the type, bullate, dark green. A free-growing bush of spreading habit. There is an example at Kew 8 ft high and 10 ft across. Also known as 'Bullata'.
cv. 'Latifolia Macrophylla'. – Leaves ovate to orbicular, up to 1 in. long; habit spreading
cv. 'Longifolia'. – A dense, erect bush to 10 ft or more high; leaves to 11⁄2 in. long but scarcely 1⁄2 in. wide, dark green. The name of this clone has recently and incorrectly been altered to “Angustifolia”. It has nothing to do with either B. angustifolia Mill. nor with B. sempervirens angustifolia Kirchn.
cv. 'Myosotifolia'. – A curious dwarf, very slow-growing variety, of dense, compact habit. Leaves green, very small, the largest about 1⁄2 in. long, 1⁄8 in. wide.
cv. 'Myrtifolia'. – The box usually found under the name B. s. myrtifolia is of spreading habit and slow growth, with leaves 1⁄3 to 3⁄4 in. long and up to 1⁄3 in. wide. Whether the plant so labelled at Kew, which is 15 ft high and as much through, belongs to this clone is not certain: perhaps so, since the myrtle-leaved box known to Loudon, though usually dwarf, grew quite large in favourable circumstances.
cv. 'Pendula'. – A very elegant variety with pendent branches, but growing naturally into a small tree.
cv. 'Prostrata'. – A low, horizontally branched shrub, described by Dallimore (Yew, Holly and Box, 1908) as growing no more than a few feet high but covering a wide area of ground. In the West Hill nursery of Messrs Hillier it reached a height of 6 ft and a spread of 8 ft.
cv. 'Rosmarinifolia'. – Leaves long and very narrow, 1⁄/6 to 1⁄4 in. wide; dwarf.
cv. 'Rotundifolia'. – Similar to 'Latifolia Macrophylla'but of stiff habit. The name adopted here appears to be the correct, or at least the established, name for the box described by Dallimore under the name B. s. latifolia.
cv. 'Salicifolia Elata'. Leaves a little shorter and narrower than in 'Longifolia', to 11⁄4 in. long and 1⁄3 in. wide and of taller, more slender growth. It has reached 25 ft in height at Kew.
cv. 'Suffruticosa'. – For centuries this variety, distinguished by its dwarf habit and small obovate leaves, has been valued in formal gardening for making neat edgings to flower-beds, walks, etc. It can be kept a few inches high by persistent clipping, but left to itself as one may occasionally see it in old or neglected gardens, it becomes 4 or 5 ft high. It can be increased by division or by cuttings. It was described by Linnaeus as a species – B. suffruticosa.
From the Supplement (Vol. V)
cv. 'Handsworthensis'. – It should have been added that this is the best form of the common box for hedging.
† B. hyrcanus Poyark. – A near relative of B. sempervirens, occurring in the Caspian forests of Iran and bordering Russia as undergrowth beneath Carpinus orientalis, Quercus castaneifolia and Parrotia persica. Perhaps no more than a subspecies, it differs in the larger leaves (1 to 13⁄8 in. long), and its longer fruit-valves with slightly longer horns. In cultivation from seeds collected by Mrs Ala and Roy Lancaster in 1972 and by Fliegner and Simmons in 1977, in both cases in Iran.