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Gardening 101: Sweet Box

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Gardening 101: Sweet Box

February 13, 2018

Sweet Box, Sarcococca confusa: “In good odor”

Sweet box is a modest shrub, with small flowers and narrow evergreen leaves. It’s the scent that gets people talking, while attracting early bees. And yet, once you take notice, Sarcococca confusa is an exquisite plant and practical too, putting up with neglect and atmospheric pollution. Plant one by the front door and get to know it during the winter months.

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer for Gardenista.

A master class in visual simplicity, in which mounds of sweet box play a prominent role in the Royal Horticultural Society&#8\2\17;s garden at Wisley, south of London.
Above: A master class in visual simplicity, in which mounds of sweet box play a prominent role in the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley, south of London.

In landscape designer Tom Stuart-Smith’s formal landscape immediately outside the great glasshouse at Wisley, beech columns reference a mature beech tree close by and hummocks of sarcococca give a hint of the softening of the wider landscape, as it stretches away from the buildings.

As well as being ignored by the wider population, sarcococca has one of those cumbersome names that is difficult to pronounce and spell. Its species name confusa seems apt, though in this case it only means “indistinct.” Sarcococca comes from the Greek words for “fleshy” and “berry.”

The berries on sweet box are more noticeable than the flowers, though they combine on one plant as the season goes on. Besides the berries and the honey-like scent that will stop you in your tracks, the shape of a sarcococca shrub is useful, being neatly shaggy.

New ways of looking at sweet box—as an interesting structural component.
Above: New ways of looking at sweet box—as an interesting structural component.

Sarcococca can be grown as hedging, if crisp edges are not a priority. It can be pruned, though this detracts from its leaves, which are longer, narrower and lovelier than those of its near relation, boxwood (and the whole plant smells better, lest we forget).

Small yet powerfully fragrant, the flowers of sweet box.
Above: Small yet powerfully fragrant, the flowers of sweet box.

Cheat Sheet

• Slow-growing, quietly beautiful, hardy evergreens with a heady perfume.
• Sarcococca adds a different dynamic to a formal setting while providing a loose evergreen structure to an informal planting of grasses and perennials. It also may be grown as a relaxed hedge, or as ground cover.
• The flowers of sweet box attract bees in winter, followed by berries that resemble black currants, for birds.

The distinctive black berries that come with Sarcococca confusa.
Above: The distinctive black berries that come with Sarcococca confusa.

Keep It Alive

• Sarcococca is a wonder plant, putting up with neglect and pollution.
• A good plant for shade, the undemanding nature of sweet box tolerates dry soil and tree roots, though its happy place is the edge of a woodland in soil that is moist.
• Being easy-going, sarcococca does well in a pot and can be moved somewhere less prominent in summer.

Younger red berries mature to black.
Above: Younger red berries mature to black.
Fresh evergreens that are long-lasting in a vase.
Above: Fresh evergreens that are long-lasting in a vase.

While Sarcococca confusa may labor unfairly under the name “indistinct,” there is a wider choice. S. ruscifolia var. chinensis has red berries that stay red, and it grows into a more narrow, upright plant. Smaller and more refined still is S. hookeriana var. digyna ‘Purple Stem’ with a darker stem, and coloring at the base of the flowers. The smallest one, and a very credible replacement for dwarf box, is S. hookeriana var. humilis. It is wide, like confusa, and makes a good ground cover (as does confusa on a larger scale, as seen in Tom Stuart-Smith’s scheme at Wisley).

Free-ranging sarcococca breaks up the matrix of clipped beech columns and miscanthus in the Tom Stuart-Smith designed garden at RHS Wisley in Surrey.
Above: Free-ranging sarcococca breaks up the matrix of clipped beech columns and miscanthus in the Tom Stuart-Smith designed garden at RHS Wisley in Surrey.

See more about how to choose the right shrubs for your garden in our curated guide Shrubs 101, where we cover Azaleas, Forsythias, Boxwoods, Camellias, and more. For more of Kendra’s favorite shrubs with exuberant flowers in late winter or early spring, see:

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for sweet box with our Sweet Box: A Field Guide.

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various shrubs and hedges with our Shrubs: A Field Guide.

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