Posted by Dr Trevor Dines
During the long, dark days of winter, we make many demands on our gardens, craving colour, form and texture. Two stalwarts that rise to the challenge admirably are box and dogwood, providing evergreen structure and coloured stems respectively. Yet both are also native to Britain, one being common, one rare.
These are all set off by its young shoots; lustrous, dark red stems that give the plant the scientific name, sanguinea, from the Latin meaning blood-red. As a final performance at the end of the autumn, the leaves turn fiery reds and butter yellows before falling, allowing the bare shoots to glow vibrantly in the winter sunshine.
Mature plants yield a dense, strong and flexible wood; this was once used to manufacture whippletrees (a cross-bar used to tether a horse to a cart or plough). This was another name for the plant. The wood was also used for making ‘dags’ (skewers and daggers) and called ‘dagwood’ as a result, which over time became dogwood, although other histories tell that the bark was used as a mange treatment for dogs, hence ‘dogwood’.
Box Buxus sempervirens needs little description – the familiar clipped, sculptured and topiaried evergreen so prominent in countless gardens. Given its popularity, it might come as a surprise that it’s one of our rarest native plants.
Although widely naturalised and planted in woodlands throughout England and Wales, it is believed to be truly native at just two chalk downland sites. Not surprisingly their names bear witness to the presence of the plant - Box Hill in Surrey and Boxley in Kent.
In the wild and unconstrained by man, box grows into luxuriant trees with wonderful twisted trunks and branches. Most plants grow in open woodland along with yew Taxus baccata and are home to the equally rare Box Hill bug. Like dogwood, box gives a very fine-grained, beautiful wood that is still in demand for making a variety of things from rolling pins to chess pieces and wind instruments.