a community newspaper serving western Albemarle County

In the Garden: Postscript for Boxwood

By Charles Kidder

Afton’s Boxwood Garden Shop on Route 250 in the 1950s.

Last month’s column offered a pretty gloomy look at all the problems that beset boxwood, particularly the new-to-the-U.S. Boxwood Blight. Perhaps I can now offer a somewhat more optimistic look into boxwood’s future in Virginia.

I checked with Sarah Horne, principal at The English Gardener (www.sarah-the-english-gardener.com). A native Brit, Sarah has lived in Charlottesville for the past eight years, but returns to England occasionally. Even though Boxwood Blight originated in England in the nineties, it might not be the scourge we all fear. In fact, Ms. Horne said, “Over there, I never heard of it.” She spent three years at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew—one of the world’s great gardens—and said, “It never came up there, either.” Hmm. One wonders if garden writers—myself included—are always looking for the next great story. Even, or particularly, if, it brings bad news. (I noticed that The Washington Post ran an article on the blight a day before the Crozet Gazette back in September. But if you think they scooped us, remember: they’re a daily, and we’re a monthly publication!)

I also contacted Bennett Saunders of Saunders Brothers Nursery in Nelson County. They are wholesale growers of boxwood and have reason to be concerned about any potential problem. “There have been disease scares in this world in the past,” said Saunders. “The problem with this disease is we just don’t know anything about it yet.” In the last seven months, Saunders has been to Europe twice to learn about the disease. Shortly, he will make his third trip to North Carolina State University to see Kelly Ivors, the leading researcher in the U.S. on the disease. His nursery has donated some 1,500 plants to her work there, and Ivors is finding tremendous differences in the tolerance of different varieties. “Even by the end of this growing season, we will know a lot more about this disease and how to manage it,” Saunders said.

What if you are looking to purchase boxwoods today and are worried about the possibility of getting a diseased plant? Saunders advises to simply look at the plant, and don’t buy it if it shows brown leaves at the base. But he emphasizes that fertilizer burn, leafminer damage, Volutella, Macrophoma, and Boxwood Decline all share many of the same symptoms.

“I have been around boxwood all of my 51 years and would find it difficult today to tell the differences in these diseases,” he added.

As for varietal susceptibilities, Saunders feels that if the pathogen is close by, a tightly clipped English Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Suffruticosa’) might very well be doomed. “I would never plant English Box in a tight hedge. But then again, we have been saying that for 30 years. You have to understand the most important thing about this disease is that it thrives in the moist, damp, stagnant air within a tightly clipped hedge, usually in a sempervirens cultivar. However, a fairly open-growing microphylla variety, such as ‘Winter Gem’ or ‘Jim Stauffer,’ might never show any symptoms of the disease, even if exposed to it.”

As Robert Saunders, also of the same nursery, has said, “People and water move boxwood blight. Wind does not move boxwood blight.” I would have to add that birds could also do some moving if they pick up fungal spores on their feet. Still, if you currently have healthy boxwood in your garden, I don’t think you have to lie awake at night worrying about the sudden appearance of the blight.

Home gardeners, as well as landscapers, should be more concerned about bringing new, infected plants into the garden. Notwithstanding, wholesale and retail nurseries have become so aware of Box Blight over the past year that this is becoming unlikely. They have radically stepped up their monitoring and prevention measures, even burning thousands of plants when necessary. Remember: although home and public gardens certainly don’t want to lose established boxwoods, nurseries have the largest financial stake in all this.

So, Boxwood Blight is here to stay, at least to some extent. Think control, rather than eradication. As Bennett Saunders concluded, “Stay tuned. We are going to manage this disease.”

I would like to thank Bennett Saunders and Sarah Horne for contributing to this article.

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