Buxus sempervirens is going through the wars right now. Box blight (Cylindrocladium buxicola) has been hitting British Buxus hard for several years. In addition, box tree caterpillars (Cydalima perspectalis) wreak havoc on southern specimens with the potential to spread northwards. Here at Bestall & Co, issues surrounding box are always on our radar; not surprising, given how we planted over 1500 of them this year.


There are several other pests and diseases to which Buxus can succumb, but blight and caterpillars are without doubt the most devastating. We often hold onto box hedging through a sense of heritage, and also because its small leaves, fulsome growth and malleable form are perfect for the formal garden. However, should your plants perish or your fears get the better of you, there are some substitutes for Buxus sempervirens.


A holly without the attitude

Ilex crenata, commonly called Japanese holly, is the most perfect substitute for box. Its ultimate height is slightly greater than that of box, and its growth rate the same. Most visitors to your garden won’t tell it’s not Buxus, thanks to its small glossy green leaves and acceptance of hard pruning to shape. Use it in hedges, balls, cones and topiary. Ilex crenata is a holly without the attitude – no thorny personality, and it’ll tolerate both shade and pollution.


Ideal for smaller shapes

Another similar species to traditional box is Euonymus japonicus ‘Jean Hughes’. It too sports small deep green foliage which lends itself well to close clipping. The leaves are finely serrated on closer inspection, but from a distance the overall effect mirrors that of Buxus. The downside is a slower growth rate and a maximum height of just 1m. For taller hedges, look elsewhere.



With small densely-packed leaves, Lonicera nitida is another hedging option that resembles box. It’s fast-growing and its many leaves appear on long slender stems. Annual pruning will help keep it more compact, although it’s growth rate render it excellent for taller hedging. It’ll tolerate shade and grow in various soil types, but suffers in boggy ground or windy sites and shrivels by the salt-laden seaside.


An untaxing alternative

We often use Taxus baccata – good old yew – for hedging, cones and balls. It isn’t taxing to cultivate, responding well to trimming and height restriction. Furthermore, established specimens should send forth strong new shoots when hacked back hard. This is useful if they ever get out of hand. Be sure to avoid waterlogged spots where Taxus roots struggle and rot. It doesn’t look identical to Buxus sempervirens as its leaves are needles in a darker green and its main stems more substantial. You can use it to form perfect short edges or stately towering hedges.


Warm scent and a spattering of cerulean

Rosmarinus officinalis proves a useful and probably unexpected alternative to box. Rosemary will never grow tall. More intensive pruning should be done in March and April to remove straggly stems. However, its slower growth rate means it doesn’t become too messy. It requires well-drained ground, hailing from the dry and rocky Mediterranean. Ensure these conditions through the creation of raised beds; plant them around raised veg patches for a more formal feel to your kitchen garden. Rosemary’s shortcomings in terms of height and requirements are balanced out by its usefulness in the kitchen and cut displays, its warming scent and its spattering of small cerulean flowers from February.


Other substitutes

Keep your eyes peeled for other alternatives to Buxus sempervirens; you may be surprised. You could opt for colour by choosing Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’ (dwarf ‘Little Red Robin’ exists too) or a variegated shrub species. Lavenders with their relaxing aroma are another substitute. Keep trimmed back to just above the old wood after flowering to prevent bare legginess, and note that plants need replacing every four or five years. If you feel able to relinquish some rigidity, why not try out a carefully selected rose hedge? What you lose in formality and tight shape, you gain by beautiful blooms. English roses from David Austin, spaced less than 45cm apart, work very well.