Don’t hedge your bets on either of these two. í
Apart from the landscape designers who are talented enough to make terrific topiaries, I can’t imagine why boxwood shrubs and yew trees have become so popular. í
I am clearly behind the times. íBoxwood is known as “man’s oldest garden ornamental,” and was brought to America from Amsterdam to be planted at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island, L.I., in 1653. íSylvester Manor still exists today, and likely still has these hearty hedges. Creative Victorian gardeners made birds, animals and gargoyles out of the dense boxwood shrubs.
Yew, potentially, has been around even longer. Though it is difficult to determine their age, due to the fact that their dense wood often doesn’t show growth rings, yew trees are known to live two to three centuries. í
These two evergreens’ status and decorating potential just aren’t enough for me. English poet Robert Herrick was enamored, though; he wrote: “Down with Rosemary and Bays, Down with Mistletoe. íInstead of Holly, now upraise the greener Box for show.” íIn old England, once Christmas greens were removed, boxwood was customarily put up for decoration until Easter. í
Oliver Wendell Holmes was on Robert’s side, for he noted that “Box has the flavor of eternity.” í To me, its smell is reminiscent of cat urine, so it would be an eternity in hell! í
Notwithstanding their stink, yew and boxwood’s killing capacities are enough to cause alarm — and not just from the fact that yew trees were the preferred material for making the deadly English longbow. íIn his encyclopedia, On the Properties of Things, Franciscan monk Bartholomaeus Anglicus called yew “a tree with venom and poison.” íAnd during Caesar’s Gallic Wars, suicide by yew was an honorable option for the battle’s losers. íCatuvolcus, king of a tribe from what is now Belgium, was “worn out by age . . . unable to endure the fatigue either of war or flight and destroyed himself with the juice of the yew tree.” í í
Yew not only kills, but is often found in places of death. íTo appeal to pagans, yew trees were planted in graveyards in England and services were offered under their shade. íAlfred Lord Tennyson observed, “Thy fibres net the dreamless head, Thy roots are wrapt about the bones.” íDisturbingly true to his poetic predictions, during a storm in 1990 in the English village of Selborne, a yew toppled and ancient bones were found tangled in its roots.
Boxwood is toxic too, containing the deadly alkaloid buxine. Though most grazing animals are smart enough to avoid it, the occasional hapless pig can’t resist eating boxwood and pays dearly for its last meal.
There is some light to combat the dark nature of these plants. Benefits have been found for both health and beauty. íYew has antitumor properties, which led to the development of the drug Taxol, which fights ovarian, breast and lung cancers. íOnce a patient is well, legend has it that boxwood can be employed to promote hair growth and encourage an auburn color. íSimply take a decoction of the leaves with the dust of its wood and boil it in lye. íThis helper for human hair is not to be taken internally!
Beyond health, boxwood had many other uses. íIts wood, which is denser than water, was carved into chess boards and pieces (both white and black) and combs. íFittings for stringed instruments such as violins and violas, and musical instruments such as recorders, have been made from boxwood. íThat is why the poet William Henley wrote:
“The nightingale has a lyre of gold, The lark’s is a clarion call, And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute, But I love him best of all.”
So if you are one of the admirers of these ornamental plants (with hedge funds to invest in them), by all means indulge your preference; you will certainly not be alone. íBut my advice would still be to stick with native plants or yew will be sorry.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.