The Gold Standard of Shrubbery
When we drew green balls in kindergarten to represent shrubbery, we drew Boxwoods. It’s as if we were born expecting the perfect foundation plant to be a Boxwood—before ever visiting a historic garden! Boxwoods were introduced to the U.S.—the Japanese Littleleaf in the South before the Civil War, and the Common Boxwood before the American Revolution. They are iconic, formal garden staples.
Think of a Boxwood as the prettiest girl in school. She has all sorts of problems, and can make life miserable, but she’s so pretty, you don’t care. She is extremely sensitive and vulnerable, and yet amazingly strong at the same time. She has a fragrance that some love and some hate, but all admit is unforgettable. There are a lot of Boxwood wanna-be’s, but everyone loves the original, authentic Buxus sempervirens. The soft green stems and tiny, refined leaves are irresistible.
The American Boxwood form of the Common Box grows quickly to twenty feet, so remember that before you commit to using it in a geometric parterre. The English/European Boxwood was introduced in Colonial times, too. It is a slow-growing, true dwarf form and stays three feet tall. So, if you want to avoid pruning for the next couple of centuries, use the English Boxwood, Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruiticosa’.
The Common Box is not hardy above Zone 6/Williamsburg. Options in cooler climates are not as beautiful in winter. They might yellow or brown out, and the whole point of planting them is to create a perfect world of our childhood imaginations. Improved cultivars and hybrids crossed with hardy species are out there. Boxwoods can take a little shade, but only a little. Fall is usually the recommended time for planting, but I think late spring might be a safer time, to avoid cold damage to tender foliage. Let the nursery babysit for them through the winter.
If you specify a huge amount of Boxwoods on a site, contact an expert first. Nematodes, root rot, winter injury, and wind burn are just a few of the issues you might face when growing Boxwoods. That is why it is not a safe choice for commercial and public landscapes. Too many things can go wrong. Dwarf English Boxwood plants are more expensive, compared to all other shrubs on the market. A fail in a large installation could be costly. Stick with little-leaved Holly shrubs for public projects.
For homes and historic sites where pests, weather, and disease issues are not a problem, nothing beats the perfection of Boxwood. I like the variegated form for special focal points, mainly because they are unusual and hard to find. For a classic landscape look, Boxwoods are a perfect ten.