By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007
PINEY RIVER, Va. A decade or more ago, the boxwood as a favored garden plant seemed dead in the water.
At a time when gardeners were embracing a new style of gardening, with its romantic landscapes of naturalistic grasses and perennials, the boxwood stood as a horticultural relic. Stinky, slow-growing and passive, it may have defined the nation's earliest gardens but it was a backward-looking plant with nowhere to go.
Most of all, the favored variety, English boxwood, had become increasingly difficult to grow. Even the pros could not halt its decline from a mysterious root rot ailment that came to be known as boxwood decline disease, which wiped out ancient plantings at places such as Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg.
Hold on to your three-cornered hats, folks, because boxwood is poised to make a comeback. Ask Paul Saunders, patriarch of a leading East Coast boxwood grower named Saunders Brothers. Four of his seven sons work at the company's extensive nurseries in the misty foothills of the Blue Ridge in Nelson County, Va. They raise peaches and apples, and grow more than 600 varieties of trees and shrubs for garden centers. The business is investing heavily in producing high-end annuals and perennials. But the wellspring is boxwood.
Paul Saunders started propagating boxwood for sale when he was 13, 60 years ago. Around the family's 1855 red-brick house, huge, billowing mounds of English box formed part of the fabric of his sons' childhood. The evergreen shrubs grow at a snail's pace, but the ones lining the walk were so big "we as kids made forts in them," said Robert Saunders. The last of 100 old specimens were removed in the 1980s, all victims of boxwood decline.
Faced with lemons, Paul Saunders and his sons decided to make lemonade. Today, the same beds are lined with some of the replacement varieties of boxwood that have filled the void, perhaps not quite as elegantly as English box but as effectively and with far fewer hassles.
Many of these alternatives have been known to connoisseurs for years. In the 1990s, Paul Saunders decided to set up a network of trial gardens to see which would perform the best. His nursery is now growing those it considers the best for landscapers and independent garden centers.
At the family home, two varieties in particular are filling the void of English box. The first, Green Beauty, is more than four feet high and five feet across after two decades. This is slow going, but still more than twice the growth rate of its predecessor. Moreover, it is growing in full sun and heavy clay.
Robert Saunders offers these tips for getting Green Beauty to look its best: Shape the plant into a mound when it is the size of a volleyball, and then remove the late-season sprouts that are prominent by late winter. Saunders calls them "horns" and plucks them off by hand.
The second great substitute is a variety named Justin Brouwers, smaller in size, compact and finely textured, growing to about two feet high and slightly wider after 10 years or more. It has been planted extensively at the White House and Mount Vernon.
The classic tall hedging box is American boxwood, which, like English box, will get root rot in wet conditions. It also takes four or five decades to reach 12 feet.
Two other upright versions have caught the Saunders eye. Dee Runk forms a skinny pyramid, after 15 years getting to nine feet but only two feet wide. Unlike a slender variety named Graham Blandy, which Paul Saunders discounts for its flimsiness, Dee Runk is robust and doesn't need wrapping against the snow. It would function as the predictable foundation planting exclamation point, but a row of them would form a useful screen in an urban garden where there is room for evergreens to climb but not spread. My preference would be for the second variety, called Fastigiata, which rises to the same height but is three feet wide and seems better proportioned for hedging.
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 athttp://www.saundersbrothers.com. For availability of varieties, check with an independent garden center. Also, see the Web site of the American Boxwood Society,http://www.boxwoodsociety.org. 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.