Common box is a large, slow-growing evergreen tree native to the UK (mainly the south) and throughout mainland Europe.
Common name: common box, box, European box
Scientific name: Buxus sempervirens
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: box wood is the heaviest of the native timbers and will not float in water.
What does box look like?
Overview: mature trees can grow to a height of 12m. They have a compact habit, with smooth grey bark which fissures with age, and green, downy stems.
Leaves: oval and 10–25mm long, shiny, leathery and dark green, and formed on short stalks.
Flowers: common box is monoecious, so both male and female flowers are found on the same tree, in April and May. Clusters of green-yellow flowers grow in the leaf axils, each one comprising several male flowers and a terminal female flower.
Fruits: once pollinated by wind, each female flower develops into a green, dry capsule and ripens to a brown, woody seed case.
Look out for: dark green oval leaves are thick and waxy . Box wood is a heavy timber and does not float in water.
Could be confused with: the many cultivated species of box often found in gardens clipped into topiary creations.
Identified in winter by: the thick evergreen leaves smell sweet.
Where to find box
The best known wild population of box is found on Box Hill in Surrey, the North Downs, the Chilterns and the Cotswolds. You’ll see it growing in parks and gardens where it is a popular hedge plant; it is not a common tree, however where it is found it can grow in large numbers. It can live for several hundred years.
It can be found in locations from southern England to northern Morocco, and the Mediterranean region to Turkey. It thrives on hillsides, in woodland or scrub.
Value to wildlife
Box is popular with bees and provides a dense, sheltered habitat for small birds, mammals and insects.
Mythology and symbolism
Box was seen as a sombre plant and in some areas sprigs of box were given to mourners at funerals to throw onto the coffin.
How we use box
Common box timber is yellow, finely textured and hard. It is used for wood engraving and to make violin pegs and musical instruments. The shrub is commonly used as a topiary and hedging plant in gardens.
All parts of the tree are toxic and may irritate the skin or cause a stomach upset if ingested.
The main threat to box is box blight – a fungal disease that causes bare patches and dieback, especially on plants used for hedging and topiary. It can also be affected by box sucker – a sap-sucking louse that causes stunted spring growth.