Boxwood has been modernised

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Buxus macowanii Picture courtesy macowanii Picture courtesy has been modernised and is seen in almost any style of garden today.

Boxwood, Common Box, European Box (Buxus) are popular with gardeners for their attractive, compact, and low spreading growth habit. Their versatility is renowned and these garden plants can be pruned successfully into just about any shape you desire.

Buxus is a genus of about 70 species in the family Buxaceae, with members widely distributed throughout the temperate counties of the globe, excluding America and Australia. The Common Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) and the English Boxwood (Buxus microphylla 'Faulkner') are quite well-known in South Africa, but did you know we have our very own Boxwood, which is just as versatile?

Our indigenous boxwood (Buxus macowanii) is endemic to South Africa, meaning that it grows wild nowhere else in the world. It can be found in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, and the North West Provinces. In coastal regions it grows in colonies in valleys and forests near the sea, and in coastal dunes, to medium altitudes.

It is a small, very slow-growing tree with an upright habit, producing many stems with drooping branches and deep green leathery leaves, which give off a distinctive scent when wet or bruised. In the wild, once mature, it can reach +-9m tall with a 4m spread; with slender stems about 30cm in diameter, and a greenish bark that is roughish and grooved.

In the garden, however, it is usually kept trimmed to +-25 to 70cm tall and 20 to 30cm wide. Insignificant male and female flowers are borne separately on the same tree from late winter to spring (July to October,) followed by brown capsules holding shiny black seeds, which ripen and split to release them. Although the flowers are inconspicuous, they are fragrant, and pollinated by insects and bees.


The wood of this species resembles that of the European Box, with a beautiful yellow colour and a smooth texture. Even though it is hard with a fine grain, the early settlers used it mainly for firewood, but in the late 1800's it was exported to Europe, because of its popularity there for engraving. It was also in demand in the printing trade, as well as for musical instruments, furniture, implements, model making etc.

In the Garden:

Because boxwood responds so well to pruning, is slow growing, and has lovely small leaves, it is perfect for formal hedges and topiaries, parterres, knot gardens, and cloud pruning. And, although it is associated with traditional English box gardens, this is no longer the case, as boxwood has been modernised and is seen in almost any style of garden today.

In cold winter gardens the evergreen foliage provides welcome colour when everything else is a drab brown. Boxwood also provides a great backdrop for small flowering plants or bulbs, and if mass planted, makes a great groundcover for a formal grove of trees. It is also a valuable addition to woodland gardens, fantastic in containers, and a favourite with bonsai enthusiasts.

In the garden, boxwood is usually kept trimmed to +-25 to 70cm tall and 20 to 30cm wide; and nothing beats its lush green foliage for low hedging. Because it is slow growing, once established, boxwood is very low maintenance, requiring minimal clipping.


Boxwood grows well in those regions of the country which receive good summer rainfall, both inland and at the coast. In dry regions regular watering is required to keep it looking its best. It is hardy to moderate frost, but very young plants should be protected in winter until they are established.

Boxwood will grow in full sun, but in very hot regions some shade would be appreciated. It will even grows in almost total shade, but in these conditions growth will be less vigorous. Another great advantage is that the plant will also tolerate dry or wet shade, as long as the soil drains and is not boggy.

It is easy to cultivate in most fertile and well-drained garden soils. Try to purchase reasonably established plants or seedlings, and in order to encourage faster growth prepare the planting holes very well, adding copious amounts of organic matter like compost and a generous dressing of bone meal. Water regularly until the plants are well established. Seasonal mulching and regular feeding during the growing season will also promote growth.

Boxwood can be grown from seeds sown in spring to summer, although germination is very slow. It can also be propagated by cuttings taken in summer, and treated with rooting hormone. Root in a mist unit with heated benches.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Suffers from no serious pests or diseases


Boxwoods are poisonous to people and to pets because the plants contain steroidal alkaloids. All parts of the plant are poisonous. If the plants come in contact with human skin, it causes minor skin irritation that typically lasts for only a few minutes. If the leaves are eaten, they can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, convulsions and, in extreme cases, respiratory failure.

Pets exhibit similar symptoms to humans. Dogs and cats who have eaten boxwood both suffer from vomiting and diarrhoea. Horses that ingest boxwood plants can develop colic, diarrhoea, seizures and respiratory failure.

Severe poisoning is rare because the tough texture and unpleasant taste limits how much a person is likely to eat. However, the alkaloids in boxwood are dangerous, and if you suspect someone has eaten part of this plant, contact your local poison control centre or family doctor. If the person is having trouble breathing, call 911 immediately.

If you or someone else has an allergic skin reaction to touching boxwood plants, wash the skin immediately with soap and lukewarm water. Wear gloves, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants when planting or trimming boxwood to minimize skin exposure.

For pets that eat boxwood, contact your local veterinarian or an animal poison control centre. The animals may require sedatives and respiratory or heart stimulants to recover from boxwood poisoning.