Sarcococcas: Out of the box

A relative of the Buxus boxwood plant, this shrubby evergreen has the soubriquet ‘Christmas box’ and like its family member, the more commonly grown Sarcococca confusa is also used for low hedging, although more informal. This is especially so since they are not susceptible to rust and volutella blights which Buxus plants have been devastated with recently.

These shrubs flower around the Christmas period; the small waxy shuttlecock blooms are sweetly fragrant, and hence the other common name of Sweet Box.

sarcococca ‘sweet box’

Like many of us, I threw grew Sarcococcas in a shady, dry soil corner of a London walled garden. They flourished and were undemanding, and really I only every paid them attention when light pruning or catching a waft of winter scent. Still, I admired them enough to take several cuttings of all three varieties when I left London. All of them have grown slowly but steadily into young plants but I failed to label S. confusa or S. ruscifolia and it is quite difficult to visually differentiate between the foliage, although the latter’s Latin appendage refers to “leaves like butcher’s broom” i.e. Ruscus. Stems tend to be stiffer too with red berries rather than black. Also, it will clamber a little against walls. But for now they are potted together and only the more dignified and purple stemmed S. hookeriana var. digyna has its own container.

“Sarcococcas are not new to British gardens. The first to be introduced was S. hookeriana v. hookeriana;… This was discovered by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, sometime around 1825.” Sweet box: heaven-scent sarcococcas

Most Sarcococcas hail from the forests and thickets of eastern and southeastern Asia and the Himalayas., so this heritage gives them a place in my Japanesque garden. Although renowned for their winter sweet fragrance, it is in reference to the berries that the genus name derives. From the Greek ‘sarx’ and ‘kokkos’ meaning fleshy berry or fruit., which the plants hang on to long after flowering, if birds and mice leave any behind..

My intention is to bring these shrubs out of the shade and into the limelight – not literally though because they really do prefer shade; the more light they receive the more yellow green their dark leathery leaves become. I believe this applies especially to S.ruscifolia (see Burncoose Growing guide)

I’ll plant them together so that they’ll form a short, relatively low hedge at the entrance to the garden. At right angles to the tall boundary hedge and at the North and shady end of a paved pathway, the evergreen foliage will act as a permanent screen so that the viewer will not see the whole garden immediately on entry. Being adjacent to the garden path, the sarcococca hedge will also assail the senses in winter with their honeyed perfume, though I shall also keep one pot of the purple stemmed S. hookeriana to place in a cold porch for closer appreciation in winter.

"Separating the space in a garden with screening immediately creates a sense of intrigue and usually has the effect of making the whole plot appear larger than it is". Country Living

I would like to add more species of Sarcococca and one for the wishlist is S. ruscifolia var chinensis ‘Dragon Gate introduced in 1980 from China by the plantsman Roy Lancaster. After all, sarcococcas may be subtle but in the words of Rodney Yee:

"Train yourself to be in awe of the subtle, and you will live in a world of beauty and ease"

Take a scrolling view of Sarcococcas

7 thoughts on “Sarcococcas: Out of the box

  1. I once tried growing one in a container outside my north facing front door, but it never flowered and then it died. The scent is wonderful though when you have a hedgerow like the one in Trebah Garden which you can smell from quite a distance when flowering. You are obviously much better at keeping them in a pot than I am!

    1. that’s a shame Jude but as my Sarcococcas shrubs were due to be in a pot for quite a while (will plant mine out next year) I always use John Innes no 3 – also although they cope with an element of dry shade they originate in the moister conditions of thicket and woodlands in Asia so I do give them more water than when they were in the ground in my London garden

  2. A garden needs to offer an invitation to explore. Ours goes around 4 corners and I have always coveted a moon gate (even a moon window) but never achieved the framable view both ways.

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