Common Name: Boxwood, Box tree, European box, Common box, Turkish boxwood, Dudgeon – Boxwood is the North American name for the tree that is known only as “box” in other English speaking countries. The name box tree has been used since antiquity and is manifest in both Greek and Latin traditions.
Scientific Name: Buxus sempervirens – The generic name is from the Latin word buxis, which means box tree. The species name is from Latin semper, meaning “ever” and virens which is the present participle of the verb “to be green.” Sempervirent is an adjective in English meaning evergreen.
Potpourri: The etymology of the word box is buxis, the Latin name for box tree. What this suggests is that the box, a term which we use to distinguish any number of vessels that are used as containers and are generally, though not necessarily, with a right-angled rectangular shape, is derived from the box tree. Since Buxis sempervirens is indigenous to the Mediterranean region, it is probable that its attributes as a protective enclosure for delicate objects made it the material of choice for this application. The box tree thus gave its name to the box made from its wood. This is contrary to the general notion that the box tree is named because boxes are made from its wood. This derivation is supported by the Greek root word for box tree that is the source for the Latin, pyxos. A pyx is the name for the box which is used to protect the wafer used for the Eucharist. A pyx is also the name for the box used minters of specie (coins, especially those made of precious metals) to place specimen coins to be tested for weight and purity. Both of these specialized boxes called pyx are likely to have been among the first applications for something that later became known as the box, the former for a delicate religious artifact and the latter for a critical means of establishing the basis for the value of coinage.
The wood of the box tree, or boxwood, is heavy and very hard; it has about twice the hardness of oak and is credited with being the hardest and densest of all European hardwoods. Consequently, it has long been used in applications where durability and resistance to penetration are important, such as the heads of mallets and in wood turning. It is most notable for its use in wood engraving. Thomas Bewick, whose History of British Birds was published from 1797 to 1804 is considered to be the preeminent artisan of wood engraving. He set the standard of quality using boxwood, carved against the grain, using the fine tooling of metal engravers to effect the details of the drawings. An edge made from boxwood wears almost as well as brass and is superior to lead or tin in typeset applications.
Since boxwood has a fine-grained texture, it can be highly polished and has consequently been used for ornamentation such as engravings, marquetry (decorative inlaid work in furniture and flooring) and musical instruments. Most wooden chess pieces are made of boxwood, the darker chessmen stained to distinguish them from the lighter chessmen, which retain the natural box wood hue. In France, the root of the box tree was used primarily by cabinet makers and wood turners. According to the noted English herbalist John Gerard: “The root is likewise yellow and harder than timber, but of greater beauty and more fit for dagger hafts, boxes and suchlike. Turners and cutlers do call this wood dudgeon, wherewith they make dudgeon-hafted daggers.” Dudgeon is an obsolete name for boxwood when used for the handle of a dagger – a use to which its hardness was well suited.
There are about 70 species of the genus Buxis that are roughly divided into three geographic regions: Eurasia, Africa, and South/Central America. The African and American sections are more closely related to each other than to the Eurasian, likely a result of the close association of these two land mass plates in geologic history. The box trees are characterized by small rounded opposite leathery leaves and small size; they only reach a height of about 20 feet. They are hardy evergreen trees that are tolerant of frequent cutting, making them ideally suited for topiary, a practice that is said to have originated in ancient Rome, a friend of Julius Caesar having initiated the practice. Box trees were introduced in North America and have widely escaped cultivation to become naturalized. They are used extensively as ornamentation hedges around houses, often planted to afford an aura of distinction to small family graveyards in the last century.
The box tree is noted for both its toxicity and its medicinal properties according to the amount ingested, the part of the tree consumed, the degree to which it is subject to pharmaceutical concentration, and the nature of the consumer; some animals (and humans) are more susceptible than others. The constituent parts of the plant to which its effects are attributed are a butyraceous (butter-like) oil, and three alkaloids: buxine, cyclobuxine, and cycloprotobuxine, the names derived from the genus Buxus, as they are unique to the box tree. It is generally considered mildly toxic to humans. Eating the leaves results in nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and the exuded tree sap cause dermatitis, or skin irritation. There are no records of human mortality due to the ingestion of box tree leaves. The effect on grazing animals, notably horses, is much more pronounced. It is estimated to be highly toxic to horses at levels approaching 0.15 percent of the body weight , which is the consumption of about one and a half pounds of leaves. The symptoms are severe gastroenteritis and convulsions which can lead to respiratory arrest and death. This is a noted problem as boxwood hedges are frequently used for landscaping at fairgrounds and other equestrian venues like racetracks.
Because of its toxic constituents, the box tree has also been used for medicinal purposes; the alkaloids acting to deter certain pathogens that would otherwise promote disease. The wood was boiled down into a decoction to treat rheumatism and syphilis and was thought to have a palliative effect on leprosy. Because of its general sedative and narcotic effects, the volatile oils of the wood were used to treat the spasms of epilepsy and the pain of toothache. It was known that overdoses would result in diarrhea and convulsions – the toxicity becoming manifest. The leaves were used by drying them and grinding them into a powder, which is said to have a nauseous taste due to the alkaloids. The powder was used as a sudorific (sweat inducing) treatment and as a vermifuge, to expel intestinal worms. This was especially true for horses, as they are subject to an intestinal parasitic larva of the botfly; powdered box leaves were therefore administered to cure horses of “the bots.” Powdered leaves were also given to horses in spite of the known dangers in order to improve the appearance of their coats. Boxwood was most well known as a remedy for the bite of a rabid dog. The ubiquity of the box tree and the widespread knowledge of its properties encouraged experimentation with its use in a wide range of applications. Extracts were made from the leaves and bark for use in perfumery. A decoction was promoted as a means of hair restoration. Box leaves and wood were boiled in lye to make an auburn hair dye. In France, boxwood was used as a substitute for hops in the flavoring of alcoholic beverages. Decomposed box tree leaves were considered to be among the best mulches for the growth of grape vines – this a probable result of the alkaloids acting to reduce the deleterious effects of damaging arthropods.
Boxwood has recently been found to have some bonafide medicinal properties due to a fluke case involving HIV. A French research team noted that the progression of the disease’s symptoms in one of their HIV patients was significantly and atypically prolonged. The patient revealed that they had surreptitiously been taking a preparation made form B. sempervirens. This led to a 1996 medical study involving 173 HIV patients to evaluate the efficacy of boxwood. It was concluded that it was a safe and effective treatment for HIV, with the patients exhibiting notable increases in energy, appetite and improved concentration, memory, and the overall sense of well-being.