THE STORY AND HISTORY OF COMMON BOX
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English gardens and traditional box hedging have grown hand in hand for hundreds if not thousands of years. Believed to have been introduced into this country by the Romans, it was once a highly prized and valuable wood. Close-grained, and so dense that it actually sinks in water, it was the wood of choice for ornamental box makers particularly as – unlike many woods – it doesn’t warp. In fact its botanical Latin name ‘buxus’ is derived from the Greek word ‘puxus’ which means small box.
One of charms of common box is the delicious musky smell it gives off after a period of rain. However this fragrance is not everybody’s cup of tea. Queen Anne hated the smell so much that orders were given to rip out all of the box parterres in St. James Park.
Although relatively slow growing they can have an incredibly long lifespan. Unfortunately, many of our oldest specimens disappeared centuries ago due to a period of extensive felling, but luckily there are still a few ancient box trees around today - some of which are getting on for over 600 years old!
Of course they are not just used for hedging, their dense habit and ability to withstand and regular clipping makes them ideal for topiary. But it not just the old English gardeners they appealed to as they have been used for topiary since classical times. In the writingsof Pliney the younger (AD23-79) he describes a terrace as ‘adorned with a representation of diverse animals in box’.
Buxus also has medicinal value too, reputably comparable in effectiveness to quinine for treating malaria. Unfortunately due to its toxicity it is now rarely used, in fact all parts of this plant - especially the leaves and seeds - are extremely dangerous due to the high risk of poisoning. In cases where animals have died from eating this plant the symptoms have included abdominal pain, vomiting and bloody diarrhoea.
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