Buxus sempervirens

The Virtues

It would appear that Buxus was not really considered as a medicinally useful plant in the 1600s – Parkinson said that “it is not much used in Physicke by any now adayes”. He does say that giving the dried leaves to horses can cure “the bots, or wormes”, but he and his contemporary John Gerard appear more sceptical of its benefits for humans. It was more likely to have been grown for hedging borders than for investigation of its healing properties.

Gerard mentions that some – “foolish empericks and women leaches” – use it for curing “Apoplexie and such diseases”, but stops well short of recommending it himself. Parkinson, likewise, describes a medicine made of Buxus leaves that he “learned of a friend, who had tryed it effectuall” which could “cure the biting of a mad dogge”. His friend had advised that the leaves of Buxus, other plants’ roots and leaves, and “sope and hogges suet”, should be applied to the bite.

While it was not used in medicine, Buxus was not entirely useless. Gerard criticises the quality of the wood (although it later became highly regarded for making woodcuts to illustrate books), but he describes the root as “yellow, and harder than the timber, but of greater beauty, and more fit for dagger haftes, boxes, and such like uses”. This last use is probably the most appropriate one for a plant known as common box.

Buxus sempervirens herbarium specimen

 

The History: humilis beginnings

Buxus sempervirens appears in the 1648 and 1658 catalogues as ‘Buxus humilis’ (known as Dutch boxe, its Latin name indicates that it was a dwarf species), and retains that name in several of the dried specimens from the time. Linnaeus, in his book Species Plantarum, renamed ‘Buxus humilis’ as Buxus sempervirens β suffruticosa, which was later simplified to Buxus sempervirens (which literally means ever-living box).

Whether or not Buxus sempervirens is a native species of the British Isles is actually a surprisingly contentious issue, and there is no agreement on the answer. Those who argue that it is indigenous point to the naming of Box Hill in Surrey which has a population of Buxus trees growing on it; there have also been archaeological finds of Roman graves in England with Buxus sempervirens leaves thrown in, suggesting that they have been present in the British Isles for some time. On the other hand, Parkinson draws a distinction between ‘Buxus humilis’ (Buxus sempervirens) and “Our common Boxe tree”, saying that the former was found only in gardens and that the latter was common in woodland. So, is Buxus sempervirens native to the British Isles or not? The best answer may well be the one expressed by one recent group of authors: “its native status is uncertain”.

Buxus sempervirens