For centuries gardeners have planted common boxwood to created dense, evergreen hedges (and mazes!).
Common boxwood's small everygreen leaves make the species perfect for close shearing and topiary.
Common boxwood is a dense, multi-stemmed, abundantly branched shrub or small tree with small leathery evergreen leaves that grow in pairs opposite each other. The leaves are glossy dark green, about an inch (2.5 cm) long, and oval to oblong in shape with a notch at the tip. Bruised leaves have a distinctive sweet smell. The species is slow growing, eventually getting up to 15 ft (4.5 m) tall with a spread just as wide, but many of the cultivars stay quite a bit smaller. In spring the monoecious boxwoods produce small star shaped yellow-green male and female flowers on the same plants. You can tell them apart: Male flowers have four conspicuous yellow stamens which are longer than the four sepals; female flowers have a three parted ovary surrounded by six sepals. Note that the flowers do not have true petals, but the sepals look like petals and give the flower its star shape. Although not particularly showy, the flowers are fragrant and are visited by bees. The fruits are small ovoid capsules that split open when ripe to release the shiny black seeds.
Among the many boxwood cultivars are several with variegated foliage. Selections that have leaves splashed or margined with yellow include 'Aureomarginata', 'Latifolia Maculata', 'Aurea-variegata' and 'Aureo-pendula' which has a weeping habit. Some cultivars with white variegated leaves are 'Albo-marginata', 'Elegantissima' and 'Argenteo-variegata'. The cultivar 'Newport Blue' has blue-green leaves and is dwarf in stature, getting only about 18 in (45 cm) tall. 'Pendula' is a gracefully weeping form that forms a small tree to 6 ft (2 m) in height. 'Arborescens' and 'Angustifolia' are treelike, getting up to 20 ft (6 m) in height. For a boxwood cultivar that grows straight up in a narrow column, see 'Graham Blandy', 'Fastigata' and 'Zehrung'. 'Conica' grows in an erect, cone shape. 'Prostrata' is small and low spreading. 'Suffruticosa', sometimes called edging boxwood, is small with tiny leaves.
Be sure to see Floridata’s profile on littleleaf boxwood (B. microphylla) for more info on the boxwoods.
Location Buxus sempervirens is native to Europe, western Asia and North Africa. It typically grows in rocky situations.
Culture Light: Common boxwood does best in partial shade, with full sun during part of the day. It tolerates full sun all day so long as the soil isn’t too dry. Moisture: Boxwood likes a well drained, neutral to alkaline soil. Once established, boxwood is fairly tolerant of moderate drought if it isn’t too hot. But don’t let the soil dry out completely. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 - 8. Only some of the cultivars (notably 'Northland', 'Northern Find' and 'Pullman') are hardy to zone 5; most cultivars and the species are hardy only to zone 6. In warmer climates, use the related littleleaf boxwood, which is more tolerant of heat. Boxwoods pruned too late in the summer (after July) can suffer winter damage to the tender new growth. Propagation: Seed should be sown in autumn with germination expected the following spring. Note that the slow growing boxwood will take years to become a real shrub when started from seed. Semi-ripe stem cuttings with a heel can be rooted in summer. Boxwood can sometimes be divided at the roots and the suckers can be used to start new plants. Some cultivars are propagated by grafting onto seedlings.
Closely sheared boxwood shrub is easily trimmed into hedges, borders, formal geometric shapes and topiary.
Boring to some maybe, but the common boxwood has many horticultural uses. Boxwood is incredibly tolerant of hard pruning and is therefore the go-to shrub for screens, hedges, edging and topiary. You can cut a boxwood all the way to the ground and it will recover nicely, eventually growing back into a dense shrub. Or you can prune it to the shape you want right now. Few shrubs are as useful for creating that formal, squared off hedge, if that is your pleasure. The fanciful knot gardens of Old England are laid out with formal hedges of boxwood. 'Newport Blue', reaching only 18 in (45 cm) in height is a great selection for edging around beds and borders. The dwarf cultivars are excellent as ground covers and specimens in rock gardens. Boxwoods are widely used as screening around the foundations of houses.
Few broadleaved shrubs are better suited to bonsai than good old boxwood. The dwarf varieties, with their tiny leaves and slow growth, are the most useful. The cultivars 'Suffruticosa' and 'Newport Blue' are especially popular with bonsai enthusiasts.
Boxwoods can be moved easier than most shrubs. I have seen mature boxwoods yanked out of the ground with a chain and a tractor, then left lying on their sides for weeks, then replanted somewhere else, and coming back to normal growth in a year or so.
You may have heard of Turkish boxwood, the wood of the common boxwood which is very hard and close grained and a light yellow in color. It is used for carving, turning on a lathe, rulers, tools, musical instruments, delicate inlays and for engraving blocks. It is said that the best comes from Turkey.
There are some 60 or 70 species in the genus Buxus. All are evergreen shrubs or small trees, mostly from Europe, Asia and Africa, but a few occur in Central America and the Caribbean. The boxwood family, Buxaceae, has about 7 genera, one of which, Pachysandra, includes the American subshrub, Allegheny spurge (P. procumbens).
Some people may experience skin irritation from contact with boxwood sap.