Relic: "an object invested with interest by reason of its antiquity or associations with the past."
I've been intrigued by boxwood shrubs for over a quarter century now, especially the older varieties found here and there in front yards and gardens around Victoria. Often they appear as thick-set hedges or path edgings, less frequently as screen plantings or specimen shrubs. To me the mere presence of boxwood near an older house suggests age and settled living, making it feel more homey. Years after first noticing these older plantings, I learned how to transfer them (and by extension, hints of their era) in the form of cloned offspring, a trick leading to a second life in a new locale. While I know little technically about them, the older varieties strike me as having leaf textures, colour variations, and growth habits that differ subtly from today's popular offerings. Some are decidedly coarser in appearance than current more-refined types, while a few are delightfully variegated and have a slight roll to their leaves.
I first began noticing these relic boxwood on walks taken in older neighbourhoods, where they firmly anchor houses to their surroundings even in smaller front yards. Most often they appear as fairly coarse hedging, tracing the line where lot meets sidewalk and marking a rectangular edge to the domestic realm while framing access to the front door. Here they may lend hints of architectural intent to otherwise utilitarian front paths and retaining walls, typically made of concrete. Less frequently, they are found serving as specimen shrubs in a border or foundation planting, where they are also likely to be taller and rather more open in appearance. In our more rural suburbs, where lots tend to be larger and sidewalks more rare, box hedging often echoes the property's frontage without defining it sharply. In these situations they serve as screens that help to integrate native species and natural features with human landscape choices, and they are often presented in the looser manner suited to more rural surroundings.
Boxwood are also found tracing the outline of front paths to graphic effect, adding visual interest and vertical dimension to the ground plane. Somehow their mere presence intensifies feelings of long-habitation while adding form and character to the access spaces. Sometimes these front or side yard hedge plantings comprise most or even all of the small garden.
The association of long-habitation with the presence of boxwood plantings likely derives from the fact humans have grown them ornamentally for so long a time and across so many cultures, both in the West (from before the Roman Empire) and in the East in Korea, China and Japan, where they are prized for their low mounding forms. Boxwood are native to many areas of the globe and have been used to order human landscapes for so long now that they are thought of as the world's oldest ornamental plant. Hence boxwood's presence imparts a sense of age no matter how recent the planting may be.
Ornamental use of boxwood today is broadly consistent with what we know from written records about its prior use - most notably by wealthy Romans at country villas in the heyday of their empire. Here it served as garden hedging as well as edging for paths, also as gradations between garden levels, and for topiary too - but much of it placed and arranged without any great formality. "The literary mentions of box clearly depict the plant's use in high-status ornamental gardens in Italy. Pliny describes in detail how to take cuttings of box for topiary bushes and Pliny the Younger's description of his own garden layout had box hedges separating paths. In fact, the selection of box as an ornamental garden plant has been attributed largely to its suitability for topiary." (L.A. Lodwick, Evergreen Plants in Roman Britain).
Boxwood are broad-leafed evergreen shrubs with a naturally compact appearance, so their shape remains more stable over the course of the seasons. Part of the charm of these slow-growing plants is how readily they take to the shears, responding with architectural definition for year-round garden structure. The more-dwarf varieties can be set out as low geometric shapes, or placed in lines, or treated as garden incidents, elaborating structure with a note of elegance. The taller and ultimately tree-forming varieties of boxwood work well as specimen shrubs whose upward growth can be held in check with regular pruning. Lodwick also notes that box "obscures temporal changes between the seasons", making them attractive to gardeners seeking year-round effects. Boxwood can provide welcome continuity in gardens whose scenic show of flowering plants disappears entirely from late fall through early spring.
Use of boxwood by wealthy villa owners declined with the demise of the Roman empire and little is known about ornamental use in the ensuing long period of instability and warfare. With the return of peace coupled with rising wealth in the later middle ages, the old garden habit of edging beds and paths in clipped boxwood revived among prosperous Italians. This easily shaped shrub appears to have an affinity for marking bounds and edges in the hands of ornamental gardeners, a quality this era would take to new extremes. Geometry was then in fashion too, and in aristocratic gardens this led to heightened formality, tight symmetry, and a much-stiffened use of boxwood. From Italy, a fad for stiffly controlled designs spread across much of Europe, ultimately giving rise to severe parterres in Holland and France (as at Versailles, for example). This trend towards unrelenting confinement of plant growth was intended to symbolize wealth, grandeur and social standing, as it takes vast labour to constrain boxwood in the despotic manner pictured below.
European aristocrats, deploying fleets of gardeners, turned shaped boxwood into a symbol of pomp and splendour in their gardens, while demonstrating man's growing control over 'nature'. Even remote Norway, with a climate inhospitable to box cultivation except for a narrow strip along the southwest coast, initially adopted this stiffened look. Apparently, Norwegian gardeners working on grand gardens elsewhere in Europe brought rooted cuttings back home with them, setting these out parterre-style at the manorial homes of rich merchants. Interestingly, in Norway the vogue for tightly clipped plantings steadily gave way to a more loosened style of arranging and trimming boxwood, a trajectory that continues today (see photo cluster, below right). English gardeners in the seventeenth century also used boxwood fairly stiffly in their knots, mazes and parterres, and topiary uses had long been popular there. Topiary can include both representational shapes (birds, animals, initials, heraldry) and architectural or geometric shapes (pyramids, squares, globes, eggs, etc.). Despite the national inclination to trim box into fantastic shapes or to set it out in tightened parterres and knots, English garden use was never as stiff as the norm in France, Holland and Italy, and a counter tendency towards more-relaxed presentation always had a following. Later, when gardening became a more middle-class pursuit and the cottage-garden style came into fashion among owner-designers, a less-formal use of boxwood spread even more widely through English gardens.
The long human association with boxwood across Europe is due in part to its widespread presence as a native species, the tree version of it providing a hardwood valued for certain specialized articles like fine boxes, combs, carved religious beads and musical instruments. Our pagan forebears also used boxwood branches over ages in their rites and rituals, prizing them for their year-round greenery and the longevity they exemplify. The ancient Gauls chose their long-lived native boxwood tree as a symbol of immortality. Since medieval times these trees have often been allowed to reach great age within settlements (but shaped for a degree of compactness, as above). The relic boxwood pictured in the churchyard above has become a mature tree that's reckoned to be between 500 and 700 years of age.
The fashion for boxwood bones in garden
design was reinforced among prosperous landowners across the entire
western world during the seventeenth century, a time of European colonial
expansion and rising mercantile wealth. Boxwood reached America in
this era too, brought with colonists as a potent reminder of the home landscape
- a tangible symbol of continuity with life there. Early American colonists brought slips
and roots of boxwood with them to adorn their homesteads in the new land. Boxwood had long stood for 'home', a value it still carries today. In
the southern colonies especially, where extensive plantation gardens
were often maintained by African American slaves, boxwood readily gave
novel form to new-world gardens. George Washington, America's
first President, used boxwood extensively to frame the gardens at his Mount
Vernon estate, and Thomas Jefferson in turn rooted cuttings from
Washington's gardens to frame his estate at Monticello. From early on an
American love affair with these shapely, reliable plants has ebbed and flowed repeatedly, dividing allegiance between a stiffer and more formal look and something more relaxed and informal (so likely better
suited to garden-making in a previously untamed nature). The 1892 house by
San Francisco architect
Willis Polk standing on Russian Hill (photo above) has a foreground planting of boxwood used informally. The descent of Lombard Street (photo to the right) is structured by switchbacks edged in trimmed but still-flowing dwarf boxwood.
The use of boxwood in older Victoria gardens is a more recent and far less-self-conscious matter than the stiff look of formal parterres, town settlement here only having come about in the latter half of the nineteenth century. From the turn of the twentieth century and with Victoria becoming a small city, boxwood have regularly been used in local shrubbery gardens, typically as front or side yard hedging that is kept with a certain coarseness of texture. My impressions of this versatile plant grew from noticing one such hedge crowning a low granite wall, first seen back in 1988 at the house at Fort and Linden pictured below.
This hedge, which seemed venerable to my eye thirty years ago, has a timeless quality that runs with the genre. Once aware of the dynamic synergy between boxwood and stone walls, I began to notice it more and more, and of course I coveted the specific effect for the home garden.
Still, I wasn't at all pleased with how this all went down, realizing later that I had missed the opportunity to take cuttings from the doomed plant. I suspect I've been making up for that failure ever since! But in fact I was only just at the point of learning to root cuttings, so lacked the awareness to prompt the thought. However, once the feasibility of this process became more clear, I realized it could easily be applied to any older boxwood that happened to catch my eye.
I decided to place them at the front of our house, along the edge of a stone retaining wall where I felt they would show well. The layout ran along the edge of our parking spot, making a hard right turn for the steps up from it (so requiring an L-shaped planting). I took a playful approach to the challenge and wound up with an unconventional layout. The result, more modernist than traditional, uses boxwood in units or short runs rotated slightly across the centreline of the L (below right). I further complicated matters by introducing a second type of relic boxwood, with a more rounded shape, to punctuate the runs of squared-up box at various points. This complexity has given the result a rather funky, segmented quality overall. The plants have adapted well to their difficult growing site, and the design seems to hang together reasonably well despite its unusual qualities.
"Generally speaking the landscape architect...errs in stressing formal effect, whilst the amateurs, seeking to express their personalities, overdo the informal. We believe one's endeavour should be directed, not to creating the garden of one's dream, but to confine one's self to trying to work with the natural setting and environment of your actual garden. Utilize the indigenous growth that can and does thrive where you live. By doing this, your work will blend in with the natural scenery which exists in the area. One cannot improve on nature, and, if one persists in trying to do so, one simply ends up with an artificial oasis."
Lodwick, L.A., Evergreen Plants In Roman Britain
Master Gardener Program, The Italian Garden
Salvesson, P.H. and Kanz, B., Boxwood cultivars in old gardens in Norway
Salvesson, Kanz and Moe, Historical Cultivars of Buxus sempervivens revealed in a Preserved 17th century Garden
American Boxwood Society newsletters http://www.boxwoodsociety.org/
Cf:Wooden tools and fire technology in the early Neanderthal site of Poggetti Vecchi (Italy), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Feb 5, 2018