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Buxus sempervirens, common box

Summary

This evergreen shrub is, generally, thought of as purely decorative but it has an important role in keeping witches from entering the house or, when used as a border, from stealing plants in the garden.

Blog Entries

Read more about Buxus sempervirens, box, in these blog entries;
Box, witches and Terry Pratchett

Family

Buxaceae

Meaning of the Name

Buxus
Latin for 'box' and believed to derive from its use to make small, finely carved boxes known in Greek as pyxos.  But Buxus is also Latin for flute so the name may come from its use to make flutes.
 
sempervirens
‘semper’ is Latin for ‘always’ and ‘virens’ is ‘green’.

Common Names and Synonyms

common box, evergreen boxwood

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Contains the alkaloid buxine which causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. The leaves are poisonous to humans but its unpleasant odour and bitter taste tends to minimise its ingestion. Farm stock, especially cattle are said to have grazed box bushes if they get into gardens. Death may occur through respiratory failure.

 Contact can cause skin rashes and the clippings should be handled with care.

Incidents

Anecdotally, said to cause poisoning in farm animals. There are two papers, in French, one from 1973 and the other from 1986 describing the poisoning of calves.

Folklore and Facts

Buxus sempervirens, common box

Buxus sempervirens, common box

Witches use knowledge as power and, hence, can tell you the numbers of every branch, every twig and every leaf of every plant - except box. The plant is so compact and the leaves so small that when a witch tries to count them she, inevitably, loses her place and has to start again. This leads to its being planted near the door of a house so that a witch, seeking entry, will be found counting its leaves, over and over.

Planting it as a border around a flower bed will also distract any witch wishing to steal plants from the garden for use to make the hallucinogenic salve which gives the impression of flying.

The principal alkaloid in Buxus is buxine which causes respiratory paralysis in humans and livestock. Other alkaloids are present in smaller amounts and one of these, cycloprotobuxine has been investigated as a chemotherapeutic agent in cancer therapy but, so far, has not gone beyond investigation.

Trials by French workers seemed to show that an extract from box was helpful in reducing the amount of HIV virus in an infected person. This work was done before the present antiretroviral drugs were available and there is no indication that further trials are being undertaken.

In the French trial some subjects were given a low dose of the box extract, some a high dose and some a placebo. Those on the low dose responded well but those on the high dose exhibited some side effects of vomiting, diarrhoea, muscular spasms, and paralysis.

The plant can be subject to fungal attack, called box blight, and large populations are particularly susceptible. In November 2012, the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden was forced to close to allow removal of all the box hedging as a result of blight.