Everybody's a Critic, Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling

Boxwoods? Bah!

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ProfessorRoush would like to call down a pox on all garden authorities who have advocated various winter hardy boxwoods to be excellent landscaping plants. A further pox should descend on the big box stores who sell the cheapest boxwoods available and thus limit the selection of available cultivars to us. Boxwoods are everywhere these days. Southern Living, for instance, has an 18-page internet extravaganza on boxwoods as “the backbone of Southern gardens for centuries”.  Boxwoods for landscaping. Boxwoods as the perfect container plants. Trim and tidy boxwoods. Boxwood BS, I say!

I jumped onto the boxwood bandwagon a number of years ago when I grew tired of mustache landscaping with junipers and arborvitaes. In Kansas, those two conifer stalwarts are plagued annually by bagworms, leaving the gardener only a choice between marathon hand-picking sessions or toxic wastelands. During the landscaping of a new home, I went with less traditional choices for my front entry—large-leaved evergreens such as hollies and boxwoods.

I was so enamored by the survival of my first boxwoods that when it came time to screen the wind near my front door and outline the circular driveway (or, if you prefer, to slow and divert the feng shui flow of qi in the area), I chose to buy 12 inexpensive Buxus microphylla koreana ‘Wintergreen’ plants to create a hedge. I will admit openly that the effort has created a really functional low-maintenance hedge over the years, at times a bit winter-damaged as I’ve noted previously, but a very nice screen as pictured above.

Functional, yes , but undesirable. You see, the one thing that most boxwood advocates fail to disclose is that boxwoods, at certain times of the year, smell like cat urine. Unneutered male cat piss to be exact. If you realize the source of that stench around your house comes from the boxwoods, then search terms such as ”boxwood” and “cat piss” will turn up any number of entries about the problem, ranging from how it will diminish the sale value of your home, to sources where the authors claim to like the odor, claiming “it reminds me of happy hours spent in wonderful European gardens, surrounded by brilliant flowers, the hum of bees and the redolence of boxwood.”   I’m sad to confirm that if you park your car in my circular driveway right now, the odor as you step outside the car will not remind you of happy hours in European gardens.

Adding insult to injury, however is not beyond the reach of the most diabolical garden authorities. One D.C.Winston, author of an EHow article I found titled “How to find a boxwood that doesn’t smell like cat urine,” is a prime example. The advice given in the article?  Avoid the Buxus sempervirens cultivars because they are have the strongest “acrid” odor. Seek out the species Buxus microphylla. Mr.Winston specifically recommended ‘Wintergreen’. Ain’t that a hoot?

Take it from me,  don’t plant boxwoods by your front door. Ever.

Posted by on May 12, 2014 at 8:18 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic, Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling.
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39 Responses to “Boxwoods? Bah!”

  1. greg draiss says:

    So they smell like cat piss………………….also one of their greatest selling points in the battle against deer.

    It seems someone always has a gripe about something relating to almost every plant in this industry.

    Give it up already……………………..

    The TROLL

    • A little misapplied logic there, Greg. You’re supposing that deer don’t like boxwoods because of the smell. We can’t ask them, so maybe it’s something else about them.

      Yes, there are few perfect plants.

  2. Anne says:

    I happen to like the smell. It reminds me of my childhood. Growing up in Virginia, English Boxwoods are a staple from back in the colonial days.

    • I’ve heard similar statements from others. I guess I can understand. Cow manure takes me back to the farm too, but I’m sure I don’t want the odor constantly around my house.

  3. skr says:

    I feel the same about Jacarandas. I have one of those piss trees in my yard whose days are numbered.

  4. Frank Hyman says:

    In the south, there is a great alternative to cat-stink-boxwoods. Dwarf yaupon holly. Drought hardy, deer resistant, grows slowly enough to not need much shearing, small, tight leaf texture,no disease or bug problems. Great plant.

    But I rarely use it as I’d rather put in evergreens with flowers and sometimes fragrance for a hedge: Indica azaleas, August Beauty gardenia, Leacothoe populifolia, tea olives, etc. .

    • Garden Rant Garden Rant says:

      I am also a big Leacothoe fan. I love the gracefully arching branches, the variegated foliage, and it does flower. I agree that a shrub may as well flower.

      My guess is that Leacothoe would also be deer resistant.

    • TLK says:

      Another advantage to Ilex vomitoria (yaupon holly) is that it is native to the south. So many of the plant suggestions here have are species which have turned into unwelcomed invasive species over time. As far as stinky plants go, it is hard to beat the chestnut genus. At one of my former workplaces, the guys nicknamed the Chinese chestnut tree in front of the office “The Jerk-Off Tree”. My boss planted some for wildlife purposes, and now at bloom time he says he is too embarrassed to invite people to his house. (I pointed out to him that I doubted anybody would think he was the source of this mighty odor, but I suppose he doesn’t want to take the risk.) My friendly mail carrier has on her route a street lined with chestnuts; at the post office it is referred to as Bordello Boulevard.

  5. Chris says:

    That is interesting, because last week a local garden show had as its “plant of the week” Sarcococca hookeriana, or “Himalayan Sweet Box” (a dwarf version under a meter, others go to two meters high).

    I guess that family can be another alternative. Though I never cared much for those kinds of hedges because they seem kind of boring. Though it may be because I am in a maritime climate that I’ve seen more interesting alternatives like rosa rugosa (especially if you don’t like intruders), rosemary and even one of Camellia sinensis at the UW’s Medicinal Herb Garden:
    http://www.uwmedicinalherbgarden.org/

    By the way, I have noticed that there is a great deal of variability in how a person interprets smells. I have been told certain plants smell lovely, only to find them repulsive. These include paper white narcissus, chameleon plant (Houttuynia cordata), fennel and cilantro (yes, I am one of those). Sometimes it is in the nose of the beholder.

    • Yes, it’s interesting. My wife loves cilantro and I run screaming from anything that contains it (one of the reasons I avoid eating at Chipotle is their rice is full of cilantro). And one of the only outside smells I know worse than boxwood is Houttuynia cordata. I grew it once, realized the odor problem, and spent a decade killing it out of the bed where it had spread everywhere.

      • Chris says:

        I did the same. I was talked into at a plant sale, and deeply regretted it.

        One interesting thing is there is a house being constructed near ours, and hubby and I like to walk by to see the progress. He complained of a terrible smell from some plant that I could not figure out, because all I could smell was the lilac. I suspect it was the large Sarcococca whatever that was in bloom, or it could have been something else I could not see (the previous house had overgrown landscaping that was mostly kept, since they are using the old garden shed to store construction supplies).

        I hope neither of us has a problem with the Azara microphylla, its flowers are supposed to smell like chocolate.

  6. Tibs says:

    I have a boxwood with Rochester on the name. Suppose to only get 18″ x 18″. So far has stayed that size. I love it because it only needs sheered once a season and a little snipping of wild growth. Unlike the $&&$#% privet which needs trimmed monthly. Tom cat smell is a way of life. Don’t know why the stray toms can’t understand there is no need to pee and hang around. The female felines are fixed and not interested. My reputation as crazy cat lady of the neighborhood just increases as I shout this at stray cats.

  7. Hoov says:

    Huh. I am one of those that can detect no scent at all from boxwood. I guess that’s my win in the DNA lottery.

  8. I never knew. Boxwood was not a staple plant of my childhood or any other period of life. Now I need to go smell the ones I planted to hide the propane tank.

  9. […] to come across a post today from one of my favorite blogs: Garden Rant. Their post titled, “Boxwoods? Bah!” immediately made me want to read more. I feel vindicated! Well, a little bit, anyway. :) I […]

  10. Jim Freeman says:

    Yeah, they smell bad . . . but my main beef with boxwoods is overuse, which looks like it will continue unabated if the garden “fashion” media have their way! Where did it become written that a well-landscaped home has to have boxwoods clipped like pedigreed poodles standing around the front door doing nothing all year?

    For the love of humanity, can we get people to try something else? Osmanthus, maybe? Shrub honeysuckles, even diervilla? Dwarf rhodies? Grasses or succulents, even? Anything?

    Add me to the boxwood haters club!

    • Jim, I’m so with ya. I think my post (sharing this post) just automatically stuck itself in the comments above. Huh, interesting. I really didn’t do that. Anyway, I went on a big ol’ anti-boxwood rant last summer, so am glad to read that I’m not the only one who thinks it’s over-used!

      True, there’s always some plant or other to gripe about. If I liked boxwood, I’m sure my post would have been on something else. :)

    • Well, Jim, I at least avoid the clipping brigade. My boxwoods are all free-growing….because if I had to tolerate both the smell and also to keep them trimmed to perfection, I’d have already ripped them out!

  11. It’s always the same. We buy a house and then proceed to rip out the over-planted, and over-grown yew and boxwoods. Fired a landscaper a few years back after he recommended ripping out a huge hosta bed under old spruce and replacing them with boxwood! So far never planted a boxwood; never wanted to, never needed to.

    • Unfortunately, for many “landscapers”, barberry, spirea, boxwood, Stella de Oro daylilies and yellow-tipped junipers make up the standard “colorful” landscaping and keep the homeowners happy.

  12. I never knew they smelled bad, but then boxwood were never a plant of my youth or any other period of life. Now I’ll have to go smell the Buxus microphylla “Wintergreen’ I planted around the propane tank.

    • Eliz. says:

      Hey Chris–sorry your comments both went to spam for some weird reason–I just approved both, but now I see they were the same, so sorry for that too!

  13. Anne Wareham says:

    Love that smell, though strangely I find it elusive and rare, a product of sun on box in the right humidity – and we are surrounded by box.

    Though we love it in the uk for the way it takes clipping, – http://veddw.com/south-garden-cornfield-garden/ and I’m a bit bemused by your fuzzy hedge….

    • Yes, my fuzzy hedge is not very tidy. But on the other hand, it doesn’t take time away from the wife, children, dogs, and cats or money from my wallet. It just stinks occasionally.

      • Carolyn says:

        I love your fuzzy hedge – we “inherited” a bunch of boxwoods shaped like beach balls when we bought our house, and I’ve let them go natural. I think they look much better that way.

  14. Greg says:

    Always hear the same complaints about “overuse” – of Stella da Oro, boxwoods, yews, azaleas, Knockout roses, etc. Well not everyone is a gardener, in fact, only a small percentage of homeowners know enough or care enough to have beautiful gardens with a wide variety of plants, so they stick with what is easy. Good for them! I’ll take those “overused” plants any day compared to the many barren expanses of lawn I see throughout most neighborhoods.

  15. One day I carted home a slew of Buxus in the back of my SUV. I had heard about the cat piss smell and so when I closed my door to head home, voila! Cat piss in the car. I discovered that it is the tiny little blossoms that smell like that. So I just make sure I shear my boxwood about the time they are about to bloom. Done. Gone. I like the structure that they bring to my garden, with so many other interesting plants swaying here and there.

  16. Susan says:

    I’m certainly with you on Houttuynia, Professor. Smells like wet dog.

  17. Chris Baswell says:

    If your site (like mine, a garden surrounding a Federal period house) needs a certain amount of formality, then you want a hedge that can take some clipping. And if you’re in USDA Zone 5B (me again) a lot of those desirable options (Lonicera nitida, Osmanthus) aren’t going to work, though I wish I could grow them. Hornbeam is great for a taller hedge, but for something low and geometric (and for all their problems) it’s hard to beat yew or boxwood.

  18. Boxwoods are so scratchy to deal with. My arms look like I was attacked by 50 cats when I’m done with them!

    Ditto on the cat pee. Ditto on the cilantro. Yuck and yuckier!

  19. Paul Toftness says:

    Those fond of boxwood might also like the herb hyssop, which I recently found to be the herb za’atar. To me it reeks of cat.

  20. Riva says:

    Speaking of stinky (and overused) plants… Am I the only one who thinks that bradford pear in bloom smells like rotting flesh?

  21. Boxwoods are a staple plant here in Atlanta where they may be accused of over-use, but in the hands of a good designer are never a bad thing. There’s a certain “something” about box that makes it just “more” than other broadleaf evergreens. Its a depth of character and an evocation of times long past. I, too disliked them once, but now I garden with them and love the weight of them.
    The Korean types are extremely useful for us as a fast growing malleable option for hedges and knots and parterres. I use them almost exclusively for those features and appreciate their adaptability to sun or shade equally, drought tolerance, cold tolerance and affordability. I can get 3 gallons wholesale for 8 bucks.
    As for the smell – I’m in the camp that likes it. I tell my clients the tall tale of Buxus being native, originally, to north Africa and forming an adaptation of smelling like lions to thwart hungry gazelles.
    This is a plant with an ancient association with mankind – a plant that has decorated gardens from the palaces of fallen civilizations like the Alhambra and Versailles to the manors, cottages and potagers of England and colonial America. It deserves our respect and consideration.

  22. Barrie says:

    I like red wine. I don’t particularly love white wine. A friend I love and respect once told me that in the evolution of appreciation of wine it goes white, then red, and then eventually back to white. I’m still stuck in the red phase and have been for years. I am sure this is my failing.

    I suspect the same with those who cannot appreciate boxwoods.

  23. J.Crowdle says:

    In Boston, we use boxwood only when our customers ask or the situation calls for a custom made fit. We prefer placing a nice forsythia or a couple early varieties of azaleas. The like the early bloom, love shade and we place them near trees when possible.

  24. Sam says:

    For years, we blamed the neighborhood cats, whom we see marking territories all over in other yards, for the horrible cat urine stench in front of our house. It wasn’t until a couple years ago we finally realized it was our boxwoods that smelled like that. Wish we’d've known about the smell problem before we planted them; know better if we decide to remove them, which may be in the near future given their size and our dislike of their odor.

  25. narcissus says:

    I live in central Virginia, which has many historic boxwood plantings–Charlottesville, Williamsburg and their respective colleges and estates. The odor is possibly my favorite, conjuring up only mystery and midsummer, with zero overtones of kitty cats. I look for the plain sempervirens varieties since, to my nose, the smell has been almost eliminated from the others, such as the “Wintergreen” discussed above. Its variable perception is so interesting: my boyfriend, also a native Virginian, cannot smell the odor at all.

  26. Ines says:

    Funny I planted Dwarf English Boxwood (Buxus suffructicosa I believe) because my husband (who grew up in Europe) was nostaglic for the smell. We love the smell. And it repels the deer. So does lavender.

    I have had cats most of my life. I know the smell of cat urine well. It’s not similar in the least.

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