Monday, January 21, 2008


I think I’ve loved boxwood all my life. At an early age I became aware of the special status it has among gardeners. I was not “to the manner born” with respect to boxwood: we didn’t have it in the garden where I grew up, and such box as existed in the neighborhood was insignificant. But I knew about box from an early age. My father was from Virginia, and my mother (from Philadelphia) often tells the story of her early visits to meet her future in-laws. One of those visits was to the home of Uncle Arthur; he owned the local bank and soft drink bottling plant in the small Northern Neck town in which he lived (Northern Neck is a local term describing the long finger of land bordered by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahannock River on the south; it’s George Washington and Robert E. Lee country). To hear my mother’s account, Uncle Arthur lived in a home right out of Gone With the Wind. She remembers the boxwood lined driveway, and that no doubt was the source of my earliest introduction to boxwood. Years later I saw the house as an adult: it was nothing like what my mother’s aggrandized description had led me to expect, but still it was a substantial, solid country house of its time. And the boxwood were still there lining the driveway.

A clipped, box-lined walk: that's just too much work. Nor am I particularly fond of anything clipped or trimmed unless the work is done very well and the result fits into the general feel of the garden. I very much like dwarf box in its natural form, i.e. wide, squat, billowing. Trimming them strikes me as idiotic: why not plant common box instead if it has to be box? Or why not plant privet?

My bedtime reading last night was the chapter “Box Edgings” from Alice Morse Earle’s 1901 Old Time Gardens. The one hundred and six year old book is beginning to show its age; and as I read, crumbles of brown binding material fell out into my lap. In this chapter, Mrs. Earle reveals herself to be very much a person of her time. She has something interesting to say, but her expression is hampered by an inability to express things sensibly – and so she resorts to fancy. It’s tempting to dismiss much of what she has to say in this chapter as delusion. She seems to believe things which most educated people today would dismiss as certain fallacy. In particular, modern readers are apt to be put off by her fervent belief that we inherit memories of the past, that we are born with the knowledge of things experienced by our ancestors.

Rather than dismiss Earle, I prefer to translate these things she seems determined to believe into modern form. Today we don’t have any trouble believing that it’s likely that we inherit certain capabilities from our ancestors, and if we share capabilities with our ancestors, then isn’t it all the more likely that we will express those capabilities in ways similar to those of our ancestors? Not everyone finds the scent of box pleasing. If we descend from ancestors who found it pleasing, isn’t it more likely that we will find it pleasing, too?

Well, perhaps it’s not that simple. But Earle was trying to express the deep affection which some of us have for box, and whatever its origin or causation, it’s real.

Just as real for some people is the aversion it evokes. As a child I found the scent of box curious: certainly not floral or sapid, but somehow appealing. It was not until much later in life, as the opportunity to be around big old box with a commanding presence presented itself, that I became aware of the feline quality they have – and which so many people dislike. But I couldn't disagree more about the scent of box. And I should add that I'm not a cat lover (although I don't dislike them, either). In front of the house is an arc of ten now forty year old dwarf box which have never been trimmed. Every ten or fifteen years I moved them to give them room, but otherwise that's it as far as care is concerned. They are now big enough to be a presence in the garden in several senses: obviously in the visual sense, under some atmospheric conditions in the olfactory sense, for those who can't resist "petting" them in a tactile sense and in gentle wind in an auditory sense.

This year they provided another treat. During the late summer and early fall, while it was still unseasonably hot, I slept as often as possible (i.e. when the humidity allowed us to turn off the air conditioner) with my bedroom windows open. The wall outside those windows was at that time covered with blooming Passiflora incarnata. I never thought I liked the scent of that flower, but on the air and in combination with the scent of the box it was oddly hypnotic - I mean that literally because I looked forward to a late afternoon nap as long as this pair kept it up. I had some of the best dreams during those naps! One was particularly vivid: I dreamt that I was somewhere in Persia in a very big room in a wooden building; the walls of the big room were pale pink and crafted of sandalwood. The room was hot and had a dry, dusty summer scent in addition to the scent of the sandalwood. There were roses, the scent of roses...

Today Wayne sent me an article on asparagus (culinary asparagus)and the varying ways it is metabolized by different people. Some people experience strongly scented urine after eating asparagus, some don't. No one seems sure if it's a matter of the asparagus being metabolized differently, or if it is a case of the results being interpreted differently due to varying olfactory capability. Some people don't notice anything, some people find the result noxious, and then there are people like me who find it, well, interesting. To me it's a sort of vulpine, mustelid odor, a lot like the scent of the bulbs of Fritillaria imperialis.

When I was a young gardener I enjoyed the works of Constance Spry: at that time in my life I regarded her as a sort of guide in the ways of horticultural connoisseurship. I remember the first time I read her account of the crown imperial, and I remember the sort of anxiety that reading provoked: as I read on, it was apparent that she was about to hurl an opinion about the scent of the bulbs of that plant. I braced myself for a put down - and then was delighted to read that she counted herself among those who found the scent interesting (not her word; I don't remember right now exactly how she described it, but it was not negative).

The point of all this is that I don't have any trouble understanding why some people find disagreeable things which I enjoy.


Anonymous said...

I've seen the boxwoods at Uncle Arthurs. They are so plentiful that every few years a wholesale florist comes by to trim them and purchase the cuttings. The house is for sale now. Not quite a "gone with the wind", but still an impressive home built in 1921. Needs updating. Check with Washington & Lee Realty in Montross, VA. It would make a great B&B.

Anonymous said...

I love the smell of boxwood! I first became aware of it during one of my many childhood trips to Williamsburg, where so many of the gardens are planted with boxwood. As commercial as Williamsburg is, I've always loved it, especially during the long, hot, humid southern summer. The scent of boxwood always brings those memories back to me. I'm fortunate that I live in Alexandria, VA, where there's a fair amount of boxwood; I love wandering around my neighborhood with my dog, catching the occasional musky whiff!