Talking about American vs. English boxwood is like talking about political parties. Everyone has strong feelings one way or another. Neither is better than the other or superior. Although there are many different cultivars, it is possible to note a few general characteristics that distinguish American from English boxwood.
American boxwood tends to be larger. It has a medium to fast growth rate. It has been grown here since the earliest settlements and proven its ability to survive and thrive in Virginia. If allowed to grow without pruning, it will become a wide shrub or small tree. It can reach a height of 15–18 feet. Its individual leaves are dark green and very pointy.
Because of its long history in Virginia, it is often seen in some of our historic gardens. Another way to identify American boxwood is to look at the overall shape of the bush itself. Usually it is more irregular in shape than English boxwood and often you can see through its branches.
English boxwood grows much slower than American boxwood. So if you need a tall hedge fast, this is probably not the best choice. On the other hand, it does produce a more compact and nicely shaped plant. The leaves of English boxwood are dark green with a more round shape than American boxwood and more dense. Many people favor English boxwood because of this round even shape which needs little pruning and tends to look nice without a lot of work. English boxwood has also been used here since colonial times and often is pruned into topiary forms or used as a hedge.
Even if you don’t need a hedge or a border for a formal garden, boxwood makes a nice solid green backdrop with colorful perennials and annuals planted in front. Your local nursery can advise you on the best plant for your project. Growing a tall hedge or getting a tall foundation planting can take years. If you need large plants now, you can purchase larger plants from nurseries that specialize in boxwood. But it will not be cheap.
If you need lots of plants and have a small budget, you can grow your own plants. I have had success with two methods, cuttings taken from the parent plant and layering.
Layering involves allowing the existing lower branches of your boxwood to come into contact with the ground. If it is allowed to remain in this position, it will form roots. It may be necessary to anchor it to the ground. When it has a good root system, you can sever it from the main plant and transplant it where you need it. This method is easy and highly successful, but limited in the quantities you can produce. Also, another limitation is that you must have a parent plant with long low branches near the ground.
Cuttings are also easy to do. In late summer through fall, take a small (approximately 5 inch) cutting from the main plant. Dip the tip in rooting hormone. Place it in sand or a sandy soil mix and try to protect it from direct sunlight. It will need to be kept moist but not soaking wet. In about 2–3 months, it should have some roots and be ready for transplanting.
One of the biggest mistakes made planting boxwood is to plant them too close to the house when used as a foundation plant or too close to each other when used in a row or hedge. Imagine the size of the adult plant when you are digging your holes. Even the dwarf varieties will grow horizontally and take up more space that it first appears.
Although cuttings need partial shade and protection from harsh conditions while developing roots, mature boxwood will tolerate full sun as well as partial shade. They do not require fertile soil but need soil that is well drained. Because boxwood have shallow roots, it is important not to plant them too deep. A soil ph of 6.5 to 7.0 is recommended.
Boxwood is so prevalent in Virginia that we tend to think of it as a native plant. But it was brought over from Europe to North America about 1652. An extremely ancient plant, it is found in fossils millions of years old. Thousands of years ago, early Egyptians were the first to use it for ornamental purposes. In Virginia, boxwood as an ornamental plant started with the earliest colonial settlements and continues today. You can find extensive use of boxwood at the White House and many historic homes and gardens. Colonial Williamsburg has numerous displays of boxwood. If you interested in learning more about the different cultivars, the Virginia State Arboretum in Boyce, Virginia has one of the largest collections of species and cultivars. It is the location of the American Boxwood Society’s Boxwood Memorial Garden. The U.S. Arboretum in Washington, D.C. also has a large collection of boxwood species.
Truly a treasure to behold in its many forms, boxwood is an essential ingredient in our gardens and landscapes today. As a plant, boxwood is a survivor. Plant some today and you will never regret it. It will endure and give you many years of pleasure with very little effort.
Boxwood has been used to make things such as wooden models, wooden tools and handles for tools. It is an extremely strong and hard wood that is easy to carve but difficult to split. When roller skates first came out, the wheels were made of boxwood.
By Sue Wood Walter—contributing writer