Dear Readers, in continuance of my theme of winter-scented plants I was pleased to find a whole front garden full of Christmas box on my travels around the County Roads today. This is a very unassuming plant, as most members of the Buxaceae are, but those little white flowers produce a heady, bewitching scent. It can be so strong in a confined space that I’ve watched people look around in all directions to try to find the source, expecting a much bigger, showier plant. This particular variety, known as ‘Purple Stem’ for obvious reasons, was given a Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit. I rather liked that the owner of the garden had had the courage of their convictions and had planted the whole place up with the plant. The massed flowers will be useful for any early-emerging pollinators, though any bee unwise enough to show its furry head this morning will find a very chilly welcome.
This particular species of box is named after the estimable scientist and botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817 to 1911). What a life the man had! He travelled to the Antarctic with the Ross exhibition of 1839-43, performed a geological survey of Great Britain, went to the Himalayas and India (where he probably encountered Christmas box), then on to Palestine, Morocco and the western United States. He, was a close friend of Darwin and was one of the founders of Kew Gardens. In between times he married twice and fathered nine children, though I suspect he had little opportunity to spend any time with them.
In addition to Christmas box, Hooker had several other plants named after him, including this splendid Kashmiri iris, Iris hookeriana.
His name was also used for a snail which lives in sub-Antarctica and is unique because it has no chitin in its shell, and for a rare New Zealand sealion.
Once the flowers are finished, the plant will be covered in black fruit – the genus name Sarcococca comes from the Greek words for ‘fleshy berry’. Birds are said to like the fruit, and the jury is out as to whether they are poisonous to humans. All species of Sarcococca are native to Asia, particularly China and the Himalayas, and are sometimes used in Chinese Traditional medicine. The Wellcome Institute page mentions that Christmas box contains chemicals which attack the leishmaniasis parasite, at least in vitro, which is interesting as one of the Chinese medicinal uses is to attack parasitic worms. Nothing is new under the sun, it seems.
Dear Readers, you might have thought that I would struggle to find a poem for something called Sarcococca hunteriana var digyna and you’d be right. However, I did find the poem below, which refers to a very closely related plant, with all the characteristics of this week’s subject. The poem is by Maureen Boyle (1961), a Northern Irish poet with a fine eye for the natural world. To see more of her work, have a look here, you won’t be disappointed.
Christmas Box by Maureen Boyle
There is honey and chocolate on our doorstep
since Christmas—sweet box and coral flower—
one on either side. The heuchera with ruffled
cocoa-coloured leaves hunkers in the corner but
the sarcococca or sweet box is where we step
inside by design so that on nights as dark as winter
and full of storm we brush the bluff, squat, shrub
and boots and coat trail the scent of summer
into the hall. Its flowers are what are left of flowers,
petals blown away—spindly threads ghostly in the leaves,
the odd early blood-berry that follows.
Its genus confusa is right—from so frail a bloom
a scent so big, as if the bees have nested in it
and are eager for their flight.
Photo One by By Imranashraf2882008 – File:Shounter valley.JPG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40388929
Photo Two by By Alice Gadea, Pierre Le Pogam, Grichka Biver, Joël Boustie, Anne-Cécile Le Lamer, Françoise Le Dévéhat & Maryvonne Charrier – Gadea, A., Le Pogam, P., Biver, G., Boustie, J., Le Lamer, A. C., Le Dévéhat, F., & Charrier, M. (2017). Which Specialized Metabolites Does the Native Subantarctic Gastropod Notodiscus hookeri Extract from the Consumption of the Lichens Usnea taylorii and Pseudocyphellaria crocata?. Molecules, 22(3): 425. doi:10.3390/molecules22030425 Figure 8A, crooped., CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64153076
Photo Three by By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4397600