I remember striding across the University of Reading’s Whiteknights Campus and stopping in my tracks. The most delightful fragrance was wafting through the winter air. I span around. Initially, I couldn’t locate the perfume’s origin. I looked down somewhat confused. It was hard to believe that such a heavenly fragrance could be coming from the low-growing, evergreen shrub at the path’s edge. That was my first encounter with Sarcococca confusa, commonly known as Christmas or Sweet Box.
The Buxales order consists of just one family: Buxaceae or the Box family. There are 6 genera with around 65 species. According to Kew’s Plants of the World, the family is divided thus:
- Buxus: around 40 species
- Didymeles: 2 species
- Haptanthus: 1 species
- Pachysandra: 3 species
- Sarcoccoca: 13 species
- Styloceras: 6 species
Buxus v. Sarcococca
Box, Buxus sempervirens, is familiar to gardeners for hedging and topiary. Gardeners are falling out of love with it due to widespread Box Blight (Cylindrocladium buxicola). Perhaps it is worth them giving Sarcoccoca species a closer look, even though unsuitable for topiary? In Sarcococca confusa, they would get an alternative shrub that is tolerant of shade, dry conditions and even neglect. It can be planted under trees and other shrubs. It has the added bonus of being resistant to honey fungus. It gets extra brownie points from the RHS with an Award for Garden Merit and recognition as a pollinator-friendly plant. Add evergreen leaves and the sweet winter fragrance to the mix, and you start wondering why everyone doesn’t find a home for it in their garden.
The genus contains species from China, the Himalayas and southeastern Asia. The exact origin of Sarcococca confusa is unclear, as no similar specimens have been found in the wild. Sarcococca means fleshy berry and originates from Greek. The confused epithet confusa refers to its inconsistent flowers hedging bets on whether two or three stigmas are best. All the other Sarcococca species are consistent in having either two, or three stigmas. Its black berries also distinguish it from other species in the genus.
Sarcococca confusa has been cultivated since 1916. The English botanist, Joseph Robert Sealy (1907-2000), wrote about Sarcococca in cultivation for the RHS in 1949 and on genus revisions for the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society in 1986. He was a Kew specialist in Chinese flora and a particular expert in Camellia. Somewhat confusingly, Kew’s online Plant List 1.1 shows only 6 accepted Sarcococca species names. Sarcococca confusa appears as an unresolved name, along with a surprising number of others.
Confused? Don’t worry, just enjoy the wonderful scent.
© Karen Andrews
References and Further Reading
- Christenhusz, Maarten J. M. & Fay, Michael F. & Chase, Mark W. (2017): Plants of the World. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Vascular Plants. Kew. Chicago.
- Cubey, H. Suzanne (2011): The European Garden Volume 4. Edited by James Cullen. Cambridge University Press. (Sarcococca pp. 30-31)
- Kew The Plant List 1.1 (2013): Results. 38 Sarcococca.
- RHS (2019): Box blight. RHS Gardening.
- Trees and Shrubs Online (?): Sarcococca confusa Sealy. International Dendrology Society.
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