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US National Arboretum



How Much Wood Would Boxwood Box,
if Boxwood Could Box Wood?

image of a recorder made of boxwood

The exceptionally strong wood of boxwood (Buxus) has allowed individual plants to survive, and even thrive, in the garden for centuries.  Even after its death, boxwood lives on in the form of a rich variety of useful objects: ornamental boxes; combs; writing tablets; a variety of wind instruments such as recorders, flutes and clarinets; spinning tops; jewel cases; carved ornaments and images; chess pieces; inlays and veneers.

(photo, above left: This modern recorder, handmade from boxwood in England, is a replica of a Thomas Stanesby Baroque Style Recorder tuned to A440 descant.  It is made from one solid piece of boxwood and is 12¾ inches long.)

image of a protractor made of boxwoodAdditionally, finely carved boxwood woodcuttings were used on early printing presses to create detailed illustrations for books and magazines.  Boxwood’s strength and fine grain also made it a wood of choice for strong, durable tools such as mallets and fids, as well as devices that include conducting batons, pens, and canes.

(photo, right: This protractor, measuring exactly 6 inches by 2 inches, was used as a flat map ruler. Made from one piece of solid boxwood it has detailed markings on both the front and back.  It was made in the late 19th century.)

image of a folding ruler made of boxwoodThe most historically important role for boxwood, however, was for making finely crafted precision measuring instruments such as octants, protractors, artificial horizons, slide rulers, and rulers.  They were made specifically from boxwood because of its incredible ability to resist changes in size and shape when the surrounding humidity or temperature fluctuated, unlike many other types of wood.  This superior quality is owed to the shrub’s extremely dense wood—so dense, in fact, that some boxwood will sink in water!

(photo, above: This mid-20th century 12-inch folding ruler has a brass caliper and one set of hinges.)

With man-made materials replacing traditional ones like wood, the most important economic use of boxwood today is as freshly cut branches.  The leaves’ thick waxy covering—called the cuticle—helps seal in moisture, preventing them from drying out.  Thus, branch cuttings remain fresh and green for a relatively long time.  The floral industry takes advantage of this fact by using boxwood in arrangements and decorations throughout the year, especially during the Christmas holiday when it is a popular material for long-lasting wreaths.

image of a wire rope caliper made of boxwood(photo, right: This wire rope caliper made from boxwood and brass is 4 13/16 inches long and 1 7/8 inch wide.  The tables on the front and back contain information regarding the physical properties of various rope, wire, and chain, which were measured with the caliper.)

Boxwood greens weren’t always used for purely decorative purposes.  Before being brought into the home, boxwood was first used outside the home.  In the 12th and 13th centuries, people didn’t know what caused people to get sick.  Elders and scholars, attempting to explain various human diseases, thought that some illnesses were caused by “evil spirits.”  Looking for remedies, they turned to boxwood, the wood of which was thought to be too hard and dense for bad spirits to bore into.  So, people planted this attractive shrub around the house, thinking it would protect the inhabitants from plague and other unexplained diseases, as well as any ill effects caused by witches.  

For even more protection, boxwood was planted close to the front door so that any bad spirits a person might have picked up during the day would be cast off, allowing one to pass through the door cleansed.  If the devils were not adequately removed at the door, cut greens were brought inside the home to further safeguard against any errant evil spirits. Today, in parts of Europe, it is still customary to cut boxwood and place it in a vase inside the home until the next year when replaced with new boxwood branches.

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Last Updated   November 6, 2006 12:52 PM