Boxwoods — Love ‘Em, Hate ‘Em

June 8, 2014 | By | Comments (11)

Photo: Steve Bender

Did you know that the common boxwood is the world’s oldest cultivated ornamental plant? That’s right. The Egyptians were adorning their gardens with it as far back as 4,000 BC. And ever since then, people have been trying to decide whether they should pamper their boxwood or feed it to the camels.

You can understand why the Egyptians would feel this way. Not only did thousands of slaves have to toil for decades to haul 2.3 million blocks of stone to build a Great Pyramid 481 feet tall and 756 feet long on each side, but after they were finished, Pharoah Khufu demanded that the base be lined with more than 3,000 boxwoods.


The Great Pyramid — magnificent, yes, but even more so if lined with boxwoods. Photo: Wikipedia

Boxwoods are very hard to grow in the desert, which is why none survive today.

Even so, the Egyptians taught us some valuable lessons. Boxwoods can be supremely useful plants. They’re evergreen, boast attractive foliage, grow rather slowly, and can be trimmed into hedges or allowed to assume their natural, rounded, billowing form. Because of this, they’re excellent in foundation plantings, as edging in formal parterre gardens, and as evergreen anchors for a flower border. And if someone had been a little more attentive to watering during the last 5,000 years, you’d see that reflected in the photo above.

Of course, some of you Debbie Downers out there will insist on reminding us that the foliage of dwarf English boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’) smells like cat pee. (Exciting note — the term “cat pee” has never before appeared in any medium associated with Southern Living. You are witness to history!) This is indeed fitting, for as we all know, Egyptians worshiped cats.

Pot Up Your Boxwoods


Potted boxwoods in Suzanne Hudson’s Georgia garden. Photo: Steve Bender

Suzanne Hudson in Douglasville, Georgia loves boxwoods. She has hundreds in her garden and grows many of them in pots. This is a great use, because when you pot up small boxwood, it immediately looks to have doubled its size. And like I said, it grows slowly, so you won’t have to prune very much to keep it tidy. Suzanne also reports that boxwoods are surprisingly drought-tolerant. Just water each pot until water runs from the drainage hole a couple of times a week. The larger the pot, the less often you’ll have to water.

Why People Hate Boxwoods
Folks who loathe boxwoods do so for two main reasons. First, boxwoods are found in more gardens today than dirt. People are sick of them. Second, boxwoods will suddenly die on you, if you do something wrong — like wear white after Labor Day.


Alas, poor boxwood, I knew it well! Photo: Steve Bender

Actually, the main reason boxwoods die is being planted in poorly drained, heavy clay soil — the kind of soil that just about everybody has. This makes them subject to a host of soil-borne diseases. That used to be a boxwood in Grumpy’s garden (above). For more info on boxwood maladies and how to prevent them, read “What’s Killing My Boxwood?”

So what are you? A lover or a hater?





  1. Lynne

    Don’t have any boxwood–but I have a magnificent Sambucus nigra Black Beauty that smells like cat pee.

    June 14, 2014 at 8:09 pm
  2. Denny144

    I love the smell of boxwood. I have a variety that tolerates my Michigan winters well, even this year’s record-setting cold temps. I associate the smell of boxwood with Williamsburg, VA, so it brings back nice memories when I walk outside my front door.

    June 9, 2014 at 9:08 pm
  3. Donna

    Absolutely love them! They create a feeling in a landscape or garden no other plant can.

    June 9, 2014 at 6:29 pm
  4. Katie

    Can’t stand them!

    June 9, 2014 at 2:41 pm
  5. Brenda

    My neighborhood is over 80 years old with boxwoods that are way overgrown and full of dead patches. I hate them and pulled mine up when we bought our house 28 years ago.No regrets.

    June 9, 2014 at 8:16 am
  6. Dolly Sarrio

    I love them! Wish I had more of them!

    June 8, 2014 at 7:15 pm
  7. Dea

    Ugh! I hate the durned things! Mostly around here people (probably the same ones who commit crepe murder) prune their boxwoods to resemble green muffins. UGLY! And they stink! I have a cat and even so I think they stink! When we moved into this house, the builder put boxwoods against the foundation. We quickly ripped them out and sent them to the great boxwood flowerbed in the sky. Then we planted Indian Hawthorne. Pretty; have a nice shape when unpruned; and they have a nice white flower (or a pink one, depending on which variety) in the spring. Oh, and you forgot to mention that those invaders from “The Continent,” English sparrows, love to nest in boxwoods and are not only messy, they’re noisy.

    June 8, 2014 at 4:43 pm
  8. mjarz

    So that’s what that smell is! Honest to gosh, this is the first time I have heard boxwoods smell like cat pee. I moved into a home with boxwoods adorning the front picture window three years ago and I thought it the cat across the street marking his territory in the boxwoods in a deliberate attempt to taunt my cat. Well, my cat has gone to the great beyond, but the smell lingers. While I would not declare to hate these shrubs, I’m not a lover either.

    June 8, 2014 at 12:49 pm
  9. Betty Simmons

    Hate “em. The previous owners of our home had planted boxwoods around the patio along with a lovely tea olive. Every time we opened the french doors from the den to the patio to enjoy the lovely scent of the tea olive we were greeted by the scent of tea olive sprayed with cat urine. Unique scent! Needless to say, the boxwoods are gone now, replaced by small azaleas.

    June 8, 2014 at 11:31 am
  10. Genevievedesignsbr

    LOVE!!! I plan on planting about 20 this fall.

    June 8, 2014 at 10:54 am
  11. Julie Alane Meigs


    June 8, 2014 at 10:49 am

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