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What is Buxus?

N. Freim
N. Freim

Buxus, or boxwood, is a genus of evergreen shrubs and small trees that includes more than 80 species. The plant is compact and usually responds well to clipping; it is commonly used for formal hedges and topiary forms. Its dense green leaves offer a nice background for brighter flowers in a garden as well, and it can usually be trained as bonsai or planted in containers. Buxus is also used for its wood, mainly in chess sets and musical instruments.

There are a number of individual species of Buxus growing in temperate climates all over the world. Perhaps the best known species, Buxus sempervirens, usually called common boxwood or English boxwood, is found widely in Europe, northern Africa, and southern regions of the United States. The imported Buxus microphylla japonica, Japanese boxwood, is one of the more popular species used in the United States.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Compact and slow growing, boxwood can make an excellent choice for formal clipped hedges. Its branches are densely covered with small dark green leaves, and some species can have tiny pale green blooms in early spring. If left unpruned, the plant can reach heights from 4 feet (1.2 meters) to 20 feet (6.1 meters), depending on the species. Boxwood should typically be planted in full sun or partial shade.

As a dense evergreen plant, boxwood is often used to form hedges. The individual plants are spaced so their branches link as they grow, appearing as one long plant after a few years. Since most species of Buxus are fairly plain looking shrubs, they provide a nice backdrop for showy flowers. A hedge of dark green boxwood can nicely set off the dramatic coloring of a flower bed.

Buxus is also a traditional choice for topiary projects. The shrub can be clipped into most any shape, including spheres, squares, spirals, or animals. It can take several years, however, to get the desired shape, and purchasing a mature, pruned boxwood can be as expensive as buying larger, mature trees. Anyone can learn to shape the shrub, and gardeners willing to invest the time can easily prune their own boxwood with just a pair of good hedge clippers. Mistakes will eventually grow out.

Since it is easy to trim, boxwood can be a good choice for containers as well. Smaller species can be trained and pruned as bonsai, while larger individual plants can be planted in pots to flank doors or gates with interesting shapes. Boxwood can also be used in rolling containers to form portable hedges or screens for a patio.

The wood of the plant is hard and dense. In the past, it was often used for such items as printing blocks, cabinets, and tool handles. Flute-like instruments called recorders used to be made from boxwood, and some pieces of such instruments as violins are still made from it today. Many wooden chess sets use Buxus for the pieces as well.

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