Rediscovering the timeless charm of boxwood

Evergreen shrub lost favor, but its star is rising again thanks to more varieties

In the Garden

October 19, 2003|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,Universal Press Syndicate

Boxwood is back.

Gardeners have rediscovered the charm and versatility of what enthusiasts call the "oldest ornamental" and are planting this handsome evergreen shrub in gardens of every conceivable design, from traditional to ultra modern.

After a long decline, during which they came to be regarded as stodgy and frumpy, boxwood are once again the height of garden sophistication.

Since the days of the Roman Empire, these slow-growing little bushes have been used to outline and embellish gardens with expertly clipped ribbons of deep green. Unpruned boxwood, grown as individual specimens or in groupings, are just as beautiful, forming great globes, tight little buns or slender columns 5 feet tall or more.

Some boxwood are slightly vase-shaped, and some grow naturally into pretty cones. Really old boxwood, such as can be seen in cemeteries or on old estates, have a magnificent presence in the landscape.

Boxwood is a plant with a distinguished past, but its future is also very bright. Three years ago, great billowing clouds of boxwood and a fanciful boxwood parterre were showcased at the Chelsea Flower Show in London, the leading runway of gardening fashion.

In the United States, new and little-known boxwood cultivars are being propagated and shared among boxwood enthusiasts, and boxwood nurseries have begun to offer many more varieties than were available before. Paul Saunders, a boxwood specialist in Piney River, Va., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, launched national boxwood trials in an effort to identify the easiest and most beautiful cultivars for gardeners across the country.

"Until 1980, we only grew two varieties," Saunders says. These were American box (Buxus sempervirens) and English box (B. sempervirens 'Suffruticosa'), two tough and hard-working boxwood, still very popular and available everywhere. Now Saunders Brothers, a wholesale nursery, grows and sells more than a dozen boxwood cultivars.

Around his own home, Saunders has landscaped with great sweeps of these newer boxwood, set among distinguished English and American boxwood planted by previous generations.

"I'm trying to show people there is life after English boxwood," Saunders said recently on a tour of his 60-acre nursery. "We're trying to introduce boxwood people haven't seen before." The thousands of boxwood at the nursery, growing in containers in high shade under tall pine trees, glisten in the soft light of a rainy summer day.

The national boxwood trials cover what Saunders calls "the boxwood belt" from North Carolina and Virginia, up the Eastern seaboard, west to the Mississippi River and north to Chicago. Thirty botanical gardens, arboretums and universities participate in the trials, and dozens of boxwood varieties are being evaluated.

Boxwood is also hardy beyond this wide swath of the country. It grows -- and looks great -- in pots in areas where cold winters prevent gardeners from growing them outdoors year-round.

Until a few years ago, Chicago's climate was considered too cold for boxwood. Now the Chicago Botanic Garden is testing 22 varieties and has found many that tolerate the region's difficult conditions well. 'Chicagoland Green,' a variety introduced in 1994, is one of the most successful. In general, all boxwood need protection from too much sun and desiccating winter winds.

Paul Saunders has a lot of favorites. He likes 'Dee Runk' for its graceful columnar form, 'Grace Hendrick Phillips' for its attractive small leaves and mounding habit, and 'Vardar Valley' for its blue-green foliage and overall toughness.

In any garden, a low edge of boxwood or a single fine specimen imparts a sense of age, permanence and well-being. At Colonial Williamsburg, wonderful old boxwood outline historical interpretations of 18th-century gardens. Some are clipped, and others are allowed to grow into their natural, billowing shape.

Colonial Americans treasured their boxwood, says Gordon Chappell, landscape director of Colonial Williamsburg.

"It was a reminder of home, and they would have given it a place of prominence, a spot of pride," he says. Boxwood is easy to root, and cuttings would have been brought across the sea from the Old World and passed along from one gardener to another, Chappell says, just as gardeners share divisions of hostas or daylilies today.

In Williamsburg's historic area, the boxwood are all English or American, but Chappell himself loves the newer boxwood, too. Little-leaf varieties, such as 'Green Pillow,' 'Morris Midget' and 'Morris Dwarf,' which grow to only about 3 feet tall in 25 years, are perfect, low-maintenance plants for modern gardeners, he says.

Stalwart and distinguished summer and winter, boxwood have long been fundamental -- practically architectural -- elements in grand gardens. All the new varieties making their way into the market give modern gardeners a significant new advantage.

Growing boxwood

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