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Gardens - Box Edgings

( Originally Published 1901 )



" They walked over the crackling leaves in the garden, between the lines of Box, breathing its fragrance of eternity ; for this is one of the odors which carry us out of time into the abysses of the unbeginning past ; if we ever lived on another ball of stone than this, it must be that there was Box growing on it."

— Elsie Venner, OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, 1861.

TO many of us, besides Dr. Holmes, the unique aroma of the Box, cleanly bitter in scent as in taste, is redolent of the eternal past ; it is almost hypnotic in its effect. This strange power is not felt by all, nor is it a present sensitory influence; it is an hereditary memory, half-known by many, but fixed in its intensity in those of New England birth and descent, true children of the Puritans; to such ones the Box breathes out the very atmosphere of New England's past. I cannot see in clear outline those prim gardens of centuries ago, nor the faces of those who walked and worked therein ; but I know, as I stroll today between our old Box-edged borders, and inhale the beloved bitterness of fragrance, and gather a stiff sprig of the beautiful glossy leaves, that in truth the garden lovers and garden workers of other days walk beside me, though unseen and unheard.

About thirty years ago a bright young Yankee girl went to the island of Cuba as a governess to the family of a sugar planter. It was regarded as a somewhat perilous adventure by her home-staying folk, and their apprehensions of ill were realized in her death there five years later. This was not, how-ever, all that happened to her. The planter's wife had died in this interval of time, and she had been married to the widower. A daughter had been born, who, after her mother's death, was reared in the Southern island, in Cuban ways, having scant and formal communication with her New England kin. When this girl was twenty years old, she came to the little Massachusetts town where her mother had been reared, and met there a group of widowed and maiden aunts, and great-aunts. After sitting for a time in her mother's room in the old home, the reserve which often exists between those of the same race who should be friends but whose lives have been widely apart, and who can never have more than a passing sight of each other, made them in semi-embarrassment and lack of resources of mutual interest walk out into the garden. As they passed down the path between high lines of Box, the girl suddenly stopped, looked in terror at the gate, and screamed out in fright, " The dog, the dog, save me, he will kill me !" No dog was there, but on that very spot, between those Box hedges, thirty years before, her mother had been attacked and bitten by an enraged dog, to the distress and apprehension of the aunts, who all recalled the occurrence, as they reassured the fainting and bewildered girl. She, of course, had never known aught of this till she was told it by the old Box.

Many other instances of the hypnotic effect of Box are known, and also of its strong influence on the mind through memory. I know of a man who travelled a thousand miles to renew acquaintance and propose marriage to an old sweetheart, whom he had not seen and scarcely thought of for years, having been induced to this act wholly through memories of her, awakened by a chance stroll in an old Box-edged garden such as those of his youth ; at the gate of one of which he had often lingered, after walking home with her from singing-school. I ought to be able to add that the twain were married as a result of this sentimental memory-awakening through the old Box ; but, in truth, they never came very close to matrimony. For when he saw her he remained absolutely silent on the subject of marriage ; the fickle creature forgot the Box scent and the singing-school, while she openly expressed to her friends her surprise at his aged appearance, and her pity for his dulness. For 'the sense of sight is more powerful than that of smell, and the Box might prove a master hand at hinting, but it failed utterly in permanent influence.

Those who have not loved the Box for centuries in the persons and with the partial noses of their Puritan forbears, complain of its curious scent, say, like Polly Peacham, that " they can't abear it," and declare that it brings ever the thought of old grave-yards. I have never seen Box in ancient burying-grounds, they were usually too neglected to be thus planted; but it was given a limited space in the cemeteries of the middle of this century. Even those borders have now generally been dug up to give place to granite copings.

The scent of Box has been aptly worded by Gabriel d'Annunzio, in his Virgin of the Rocks, in his description of a neglected garden. He calls it a "bitter sweet odor," and he notes its influence in making his wanderers in this garden "reconstruct some memory of their far-off childhood."

The old Jesuit poet Rapin writing in the seventeenth century tells a fanciful tale that

"Gardens of old, nor Art, nor Rules obey'd,
But unadorn'd, or wild Neglect betray'd ; "

that Flora's hair hung undressed, neglected " in art-less tresses," until in pity another nymph " around her head wreath'd a Boxen Bough " from the fields ; which so improved her beauty that trim edgings were placed ever after where flowers disordered once at random grew."

He then describes the various figures of Box, the way to plant it, its disadvantages, and the associate flowers that should be set with it, all in stilted verse.

Queen Anne was a royal enemy of Box. By her order many of the famous Box hedges at Hampton Court were destroyed ; by her example, many old Box-edged gardens throughout England were rooted up. There are manifold objections raised to Box besides the dislike of its distinctive odor: heavy edgings and hedges of Box "take away the heart of the ground" and flowers pine within Box-edged borders ; the roots of Box on the inside of the flower knot or bed, therefore, have to be cut and pulled out in order to leave the earth free for flower roots. It is also alleged that Box harbors slugs—and I fear it does.

We are told that it is not well to plant Box edgings in our gardens, because Box is so frail, is so easily winter-killed, that it dies down in ugly fashion. Yet see what great trees it forms, even when untrimmed, as in the Prince Garden (page 31). It is true that Box does not always flourish in the precise shape you wish, but it has nevertheless a wonderfully tenacious hold on life. I know nothing more suggestive of persistence and of sad sentiment than the view often seen in forlorn city enclosures, as you drive past, or rush by in an electric car, of an aged bush of Box, or a few feet of old Box hedge growing in the beaten earth of a squalid back yard, surrounded by dirty tenement houses. Once a fair garden there grew ; the turf and flowers and trees are vanished ; but spared through accident, or be-cause deemed so valueless, the Box still lives. Even in Washington and other Southern cities, where the negro population eagerly gather Box at Christmas-tide, you will see these forlorn relics of the garden still growing, and their bitter fragrance rises above the vile odors of the crowded slums.

Box formed an important feature of the garden of Pliny's favorite villa in Tuscany, which he described in his letter to Apollinaris. How I should have loved its formal beauty ! On the southern front a terrace was bordered with a Box hedge and " embellished with various figures in Box, the representation of divers animals." Beyond was a circus formed around by ranges of Box rising in walls of varied heights. The middle of this circus was ornamented with figures of Box. On one side was a hippodrome set with a plantation of Box trees backed with Plane trees ; thence ran a straight walk divided by Box hedges into alleys. Thus expanses were enclosed, one of which held a beautiful meadow, another had "knots of Plane tree," another was "set with Box a thousand different forms." Some of these were letters expressing the name of the owner of all this extravagance ; or the initials of various fair Roman dames, a very gallant pleasantry of young Pliny. Both Plane tree and Box tree of such ancient gardens were by tradition nourished with wine instead of water. Initials of Box may be seen to-day in English gardens, and heraldic devices. French gardens vied with English gardens in curious patterns in Box. The garden of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. had a stag chase, in clipped Box, with greyhounds in chase. Globes, pyramids, tubes, cylinders, cones, arches, and other shapes were cut in Box as they were in Yew.

A very pretty conceit in Box was —

"Horizontal dials on the ground
In living Box by cunning artists traced."

Reference is frequent enough to these dials of Box to show that they were not uncommon in fine old English gardens. There were sun-dials either of Box or Thrift, in the gardens of colleges both at Oxford and Cambridge, as may be seen in Loggan's Views. Two modern ones are shown ; one, on page 98, is in the garden of Lady Lennox, at Broughton Castle, Banbury, England. Another of exceptionally fine growth and trim perfection in the garden at Ascott, the seat of Mr. Leopold de Rothschild (opposite page 'co.) These are curious rather than beautiful, but display well that quality given in the poet's term "the tonsile Box."

Writing of a similar sun-dial, Lady Warwick says : —

"Never was such a perfect timekeeper as my sun-dial, and the figures which record the hours are all cut out and trimmed in Box, and there again on its outer ring is a legend which read in whatever way you please: Les heures heureuses ne se comptent pas. They were outlined for me, those words, in baby sprigs of Box by a friend who is no more, who loved my garden and was good to it."

Box hedges were much esteemed in England — so says Parkinson, to dry linen on, affording the raised expanse and even surface so much desired. It can always be noted in all domestic records of early days that the vast washing of linen and clothing was one of the great events of the year. Sometimes, in households of plentiful supply, these washings were done but once a year ; in other homes, semi-annually. The drying and bleaching linen was an unceasing attraction to rascals like Autolycus, who had a " pugging tooth " —that is, a prigging tooth. These linen thieves had a special name, they were called " prygmen " ; they wandered through the country on various pretexts, men and their doxies, and were the bane of English housewives.

The Box hedges were also in constant use to hold the bleaching webs of homespun and woven flaxen and hempen stuff, which were often exposed for weeks in the dew and sunlight. In 1710 a reason given for the disuse and destruction of " quicksetted arbors and hedges " was that they "agreed very ill with the ladies' muslins."

Box was of little value in the apothecary shop, was seldom used in medicine. Parkinson said that the leaves and dust of boxwood " boyld in lye " would make hair to be " of an Aborne or Abraham color " — that is, auburn. This was a very primitive hair dye, but it must have been a powerful one.

Boxwood was a firm, beautiful wood, used to make tablets for inscriptions of note. The mottled wood near the root was called dudgeon. Holland's translation of Pliny says, " The Box tree seldome hath any grain crisped damaske-wise, and never but about the root, the which is dudgin." From its esteemed use for dagger hilts came the word dudgeon-dagger, and the terms " drawn-dudgeon " and " high-dudgeon," meaning offence or discord.

I plead for the Box, not for its fragrance, for you may not be so fortunate as to have a Puritan sense of smell, nor for its weird influence, for that is in-tangible ; but because it is the most becoming of all edgings to our garden borders of old-time flowers. The clear compact green of its shining leaves, the trim distinctness of its clipped lines, the attributes that made Pope term it the "shapely Box," make it the best of all foils for the varied tints of foliage, the many colors of bloom, and the careless grace in growth of the flowers within the border.

Box edgings are pleasant, too, in winter, showing in grateful relief against the tiresome monotony of the snow expanse. And they bear sometimes a crown of lightest snow wreaths, which seem like a white blossoming in promise of the beauties of the border in the coming summer. Pick a bit of this winter Box, even with the mercury below zero. Lo ! you have a breath of the hot dryness of the mid-summer garden.

Box grows to great size, even twenty feet in height. In Southern gardens, where it is seldom winter-killed, it is often of noble proportions. In the lovely garden of Martha Washington at Mount Vernon the Box is still preserved in the beauty and interest of its original form.

The Box edgings and hedges of many other Southern gardens still are in good condition ; those of the old Preston homestead at Columbia, South Carolina (shown on pages 15 and 18, and facing page 54), owe their preservation during the Civil War to the fact that the house was then the refuge of a sisterhood of nuns. The Ridgely estate, Hampton, in County Baltimore, Maryland, has a formal garden in which the perfection of the Box is a delight. The will of Captain Charles Ridgely, in 1787, made an appropriation of money and land for this garden. The high terrace which overlooks the garden and the shallow ones which break the south-ern slope and mark the boundaries of each parterre are fine examples of landscape art, and are said to be the work of Major Chase Barney, a famous military engineer. By 1829 the garden was an object of beauty and much renown. A part only of the original parterre remains, but the more modern flower borders, through the unusual perspective and contour of the garden, do not clash with the old Box-edged beds. These edgings were reset in 187o, and are always kept very closely cut. The circular domes of clipped box arise from stems at least a hundred years old. The design of the parterre is so satisfactory that I give three views of it in order to show it fully. (See pages 57, 6o, and 95.)

A Box-edged garden of much beauty and large extent existed for some years in the grounds connected with the County Jail in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. It was laid out by the wife of the warden, aided by the manual labor of convicted prisoners, with her earnest hope that working among flowers would have a benefiting and softening influence on these criminals. She writes rather dubiously : "They all enjoyed being out of doors with their pipes, whether among the flowers or the vegetables ; and no attempt at escape was ever made by any of them while in the comparative freedom of the flower-garden." She planted and marked distinctly in this garden over seven hundred groups of annuals and hardy perennials, hoping the men would care to learn the names of the flowers, and through that knowledge, and their practise in the care of Box edgings and hedges, be able to obtain positions as under-gardeners when their terms of imprisonment expired.

The garden at Tudor Place, the home of Mrs. Beverley Kennon (page 103), displays fine Box; and the garden of the poet Longfellow which is said to have been laid out after the Box-edged parterres at Versailles. Throughout this book are scattered several good examples of Box from Salem and other towns ; in a sweet, old garden on Kings-ton Hill, Rhode Island (page 104) the flower-beds are anchor-shaped.

In favorable climates Box edgings may grow in such vigor as to entirely fill the garden beds. An example of this is given on page 105, showing the garden at Tuckahoe. The beds were laid out over a large space of ground in a beautiful design, which still may be faintly seen by examining the dark expanse beside the house, which is now almost solid Box. The great hedges by the avenue are also Box; between similar ones at Uhpton Court in Camden, South Carolina, riders on horseback cannot be seen nor see over it. New England towns seldom show such growth of Box; but in Hingham, Massachusetts, at the home of Mrs. Robbins, author of that charming book, The Rescue of an Old Place, there is a Box bower, with walls of Box fifteen feet in height. These walls were originally the edgings of a flower bed on the " Old Place." Read Dr. John Brown's charming account of the Box bower of the " Queen's Maries."

Box grows on Long Island with great vigor. At Brecknock Hall, the family residence of Mrs. Albert Delafield at Greenport, Long Island, the hedges of plain and variegated Box are unusually fine, and the paths are well laid out. Some of them are entirely covered by the closing together of the two hedges which are often six or seven feet in height.

In spite of the constant assertion of the winter-killing of Box in the North, the oldest Box in the country is that at Sylvester Manor, Shelter Island, New York. The estate is now owned by the tenth mistress of the manor, Miss Cornelia Horsford ; the first mistress of the manor, Grissel Sylvester, who had been Grissel Gardiner, came there in 1652. It is told, and is doubtless true, that she brought there the first Box plants, to make, in what was then a far-away island, a semblance of her home garden. It is said that this Box was thriving in Madam Sylvester's garden when George Fox preached there to the Indians. The oldest Box is fifteen or eighteen feet high ; not so tall, I think, as the neglected Box at Vaucluse, the old Hazard place near Newport, but far more massive and thrifty and shapely. Box needs unusual care and judgment, an instinct almost, for the removal of certain portions.

It sends out tiny rootlets at the joints of the sprays, and these grow readily. The largest and oldest Box bushes at Sylvester Manor garden are a study in their strong, hearty stems, their perfect foliage, their symmetry; they show their care of centuries.

The delightful Box-edged flower beds were laid out in their present form about seventy years ago by the grandfather of the present owner. There is a Lower Garden, a Terrace Garden, which are shown on succeeding pages, a Fountain Garden, a Rose Garden, a Water Garden ; a bit of the latter is on page 75. In some portions of these gardens, especially on the upper terrace, the Box is so high, and set in such quaint and rambling figures, that it closely approaches an old English maze; and it was a pretty sight to behold a group of happy little children running in and out among these Box hedges that extended high over their heads, searching long and eagerly for the central bower where their little tea party was set.

Over these old garden borders hangs literally an atmosphere of the past; the bitter perfume stimulates the imagination as we walk by the side of these splendid Box bushes, and think, as every one must, of what they have seen, of what they know ; on this garden is written the history of over two centuries of beautiful domestic home life. It is well that we still have such memorials to teach us the nobility and beauty of such a life.



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