Above, from left to right: Boxwood shrub growing in Bonnefont Garden; fresh boxwood installed on the Main Hall arches for the holidays; detail view of a minutely carved boxwood rosary bead in The Cloisters collection. See the Collection Database to learn more about this work of art.
Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) is most familiar to us as a foundation planting, or as a low edging for garden beds, a practice that became common in the sixteenth century and continues today. Boxwood has also been a popular subject for topiary work since Roman times. There are many varieties of box, including dwarf forms and forms with variegated foliage. (For more about B. sempervirens and other ornamental species, visit the website of The American Boxwood Society.)
The arborescent form of boxwood is a slender, arching, slow-growing tree. Mature specimens range in height from twelve to twenty-five feet, although rarely exceeding twenty. The trunk reaches a diameter of about six inches. The evergreen boughs were used both as a Christmas green in the Middle Ages and, in northern Europe, as a substitute for palm on Palm Sunday. According to Mirella D’Ancona Levi, boxwood, like yew, was a funereal plant in antiquity; it was also sacred to Venus. In the Middle Ages, it came to be associated with the Virgin. The foliage is notoriously pungent, and many people find it malodorous, although some enjoy the smell. The leaves are bitter and astringent. Boxwood was not used in ancient or medieval medicine, although it did come to be used as a purgative and a vermifuge (a plant that expels and kills internal parasites) in subsequent centuries.
The light-colored wood is very hard, close-grained, and fine-textured, allowing the carver to do very delicate work. Boxwood was valued for practical as well as artistic purposes, and was employed for rolling pins, mallet heads, pestles, weaver’s shuttles, combs, chess pieces, and musical instruments. It was and is especially valued for wood engraving and printer’s blocks. According to the sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard, the root is yellower, harder, and more beautiful than the timber, and was preferred for making boxes, dagger hafts, and the like. The wood of the root was known as “dudgeon.”
More on medieval plants and gardens to come in the New Year . . .
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1955.
Levi D’Ancona, Mirella. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Firenze: L. S. Olschki, 1977.