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Boxwood Is Back And Smelling Better

A hedge of boxwood Justin Brouwers.
A hedge of boxwood Justin Brouwers. (Handout - Saunders Brothers Inc.)

Vardar Valley has been around longer than some of the others and is one of the most handsome varieties, with tight, finely textured foliage that has a blue cast. This is accentuated in the spring, when all boxwood produce their annual flush of growth and look fabulous. In early May, the Vardar Valley "is almost powder blue," said Robert Saunders. It is another variety favored at the White House, said his father.

Father and son are also excited about another find, a slow-growing variety named John Baldwin, broad at the base, pointed at the top. Robert Saunders stops to point out a semi-mature plant that is six feet tall and 40 inches across. It has attractive deep green leaves, more finely textured than other upright varieties. It performs well even in an open, wind-swept site.

"We think this has tremendous potential," said Robert Saunders. "We are going to roll it out in three to five years."

The reinvention of the boxwood has also led to a handful of varieties that lack the elegance of the best English substitutes but are proving so hardy and tolerant of abuse that they are being used in plant-and-forget commercial landscapes. These include Winter Green, which grows 10 inches a year; Green Mountain, 36 inches by 24 inches after six years; the slightly taller Green Mound and Chicagoland. These varieties endure heavy soil, exposed sites and even wet soil, conditions that would doom English boxwood.

"We are trying to give them plants that are more durable and forgiving," said Robert Saunders. "If you give them English boxwood and it dies, we're giving boxwood a bad name."

The other strategy in bringing back the boxwood is to give consumers what they want, which means instant or near-instant effect. Saunders has shifted emphasis from smaller, container-grown plants and is devoting more land to field-grown specimens that will ship to retail nurseries in larger sizes. These will sell for a premium, perhaps $100 or more per plant.

"I don't think the consumer wants a Green Beauty at 12 inches; he wants 30 inches to put in front of his home," Robert Saunders said.

The one thing the new boxwood varieties don't have -- or don't have much of, anyway -- is the acrid aroma of the English boxwood. Many people dislike it; it smells of foxes or feral cats. But for others, it is the fragrance that unleashes a flood of childhood memories.

Thanks to the arrival of these exciting varieties, however, boxwood will remain more than just a memory.

More information on these and other varieties is available from the Saunders Brothers Web site at For availability of varieties, check with an independent garden center. Also, see the Web site of the American Boxwood Society, Mature specimens of boxwood varieties can be seen at the U.S. National Arboretum in Northeast Washington and the State Arboretum of Virginia in Boyce, near Winchester.

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