Friday, February 14, 2014

Mystery Boxes




These two very fine old box Buxus sempervirens trees stand beside the disused railway line (now the Tees Valley Railway Walk) near Mickleton in Teesdale. Box is slow-growing so I'd guess that this pair, which are almost four metres tall, must be quite old. The plant's specific epithet, sempervirens, means 'living for ever' and box has a reputation for longevity and indestructibility; Teesdale's notoriously severe winters clearly haven't done it any harm.

But who planted them? Box isn't native in County Durham. Gordon Graham's Flora and Vegetation of County Durham only mentions box as a species planted in parks and large gardens but these trees are out in the open countryside,and well away from buildings. My guess is that they were originally planted at the site of an old railway station or railway building  that has long-since disappeared.


Box foliage has a distinctly unpleasant smell when crushed.

Flower buds in the leaf axils. The tiny greenish-yellow flowers, without petals, open in April.

The wood is very close grained and hard, as might be expected of such a slow-growing woody plant, and was favourite material for wood engravers. It was also used for decorative additions to furniture, since it polishes well. 

In gardens it's often grown as a clipped shrub and Pliny, the Roman naturalist, mentions that it was grown and cut into topiary figures in Roman gardens. 

Old herbalists mention that a decoction of the leaves stimulates hair growth and turns it red.



6 comments:

  1. The wood was prized for making chisel handles, woodworking braces and plane bodies. It is the Rolls Royce of woods so they were perhaps planted and then forgotten when plastic and steel became available.

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    1. Could have been planted with an eye to the future, maybe. Usable sized timber now. I read that there was always a shortage of box wood so much of it was imported.

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  2. I remember seeing a box hedge in the sprawling gardens of the old Viceregal Lodge in Shimla a few years ago. The plants were probably imported from England.

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    1. That's fascinating! The English have always had a love of neatly clipped box edging and hedges, especially the Victorians and Edwardians. I suppose it appealed to their sense of order.

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  3. Funny you find it unpleasant. Box is one of my favourite smells, so evocative of sitting under one in my grandma's village in N Spain in summer holidays, looking over the valley. There is a large box hedge on my way to work and I often make a point of inhaling hard to get a waft of the smell.

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    1. I suppose scent is a very subjective experience. I can't smell Sarcococca confusa flowers that most people find fragrant - I guess it has a genetic component, like the ability to smell Freesia (which I can smell). But isn't it wonderful how scents bring back childhood memories!

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