An evergreen shrub or small tree, native to woodlands and thickets on steep slopes on chalk, and in scrub on chalk downland. It is popular for hedging in gardens and is often planted in woodlands, often becoming naturalised. Lowland.
Although B. sempervirens is thought to be native at some sites, including Box Hill (Surrey), Boxley (E. Kent) and possibly elsewhere, it has been widely cultivated since Roman times and the limits of its native range are uncertain. Its alien range has increased dramatically since the 1962 Atlas due to widespread planting and more efficient recording of alien trees and shrubs.
Submediterranean-Subatlantic element; widely naturalised outside its native range.
RDB Species Accounts
Buxus sempervirens L. (Buxaceae)
Box, Pren Bocs
Status in Britain: LOWER RISK - Near Threatened.
Status in Europe: Not threatened.
B. sempervirens occurs as an understory tree or shrub in woodland (usually beech), or as a major component in the canopy, occurring on chalk in southern England and on oolitic limestone in Gloucestershire. It is generally most dominant on steep slopes, presumably because the larger forest trees, such as beech, cannot maintain themselves on the steepest slopes and the shallowest soil (Pigott 1987). In Surrey, Taxus baccata is a frequent associate, and because of the dense canopy of the woodland, the ground is largely bare except for abundant box seedlings. At Ellesborough, it also occurs as scrub on chalk downland, dominant in places, or mixed with Cornus sanguinea, Crataegus monogyna, Euonymus europaeus, Ligustrum vulgare and Sambucus nigra.
This species is a slow-growing evergreen attaining over 13 metres where unrestricted. It flowers in April, producing copious seed, and in many sites seedlings are abundant. In the larger Gloucestershire site, seedlings have been noted as patchily present in the wood at densities of up to 100 per square metre. Old fallen trees may fall and sprout along their length in what appears to be a natural form of layering (Taylor 1990a).
Native sites are very localised in Britain, and there are now perhaps only about ten. The three largest are at Box Hill (and nearby) in Surrey, at Ellesborough in Buckinghamshire and at Boxwell in Gloucestershire. At Boxley in Kent, where it was once abundant, only about five trees remain. The status of B. sempervirens in its current Sussex sites is unclear, and local opinion tends to the view that it is not native at Arundel Park because of the centuries of management there and the likelihood of a deliberate introduction. Nonetheless, sites and habitats are similar to those of undisputed native sites. Certainly box was at one time native in Sussex, since at least two pre-historical records of box charcoal exist (Ross-Williamson 1930; Curwen & Ross-Williamson 1931). Although native sites are few, it has been widely planted in woods, and often becomes naturalised. Garden escapes probably account for other occurrences.
Its ability to colonise steep and unstable chalk slopes which are not easily exploited by other trees has favoured its survival. However, while it is locally abundant and its best sites have statutory protection, it may still be vulnerable. At Box Hill, for instance, increased human activity in recent years (climbing up and down steep slopes) has been detrimental to this, arguably the most important site for box in Britain. There, seedlings and saplings of both box and yew were abundant up to the 1970s (Pigott 1987) and when gaps occurred in the canopy, they grew up to fill them. But surveys in 1987 revealed that there was extensive exposure of box roots leading to the selective loss of trees (since they are shallower-rooted than yew), and the loss of all box seedlings from the main walking areas. Box leaves may persist for several years on the tree, and provide opportunity for epiphyllous species. They support the only epiphyllous lichen known in Britain, Fellhanera (Catillaria) bouteillei, and a liverwort, Metzgeria fruticulosa, has been recorded recently growing on box leaves (Porley 1996).
The status of box has been questioned since the earliest writings on trees, an introduction in Roman times sometimes having been assumed. However, the evidence for its native status has been reviewed by Pigott and Walters (1953) and Staples (1971), and it is now generally acknowledged to be native. Though never widespread in Britain, such was its importance that it has given rise to many historic place names, including Box Hill in Surrey, Boxwell in Gloucestershire and Buxted in Kent, and was also referred to in Anglo-Saxon and Welsh charters.
In Europe, it is an important component of sub-alpine woodland in the Pyrenees, Alps and Apennines. Woodlands similar to those at Box Hill occur in France, and are characteristic of the limestone regions of the Massif Central. It also occurs in the mountains of North Africa.
PLANTATT - Attributes of British and Irish plants. (.zip 1455KB) This dataset was compiled and published in 2004, and last updated in November 2008. Download includes an Excel spreadsheet of the attributes, and a PDF explaining the background and nomenclature. Note that the PDF version is the booklet as published, whereas the Excel spreadsheet incorporates subsequent corrections. A hardcopy can be purchased from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.