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(Box family)


This is a small family of about 100 species of evergreen shrubs or small trees in 4 genera, found mostly in tropical and sub-tropical regions but also occurring in temperate regions.

The common box (Buxus sempervirens L.) has been grown as a hedging plant, often for topiary, for many centuries. This species, and to a lesser extent B. macowani Oliver, is a source of boxwood which is used for tool handles, musical instruments (especially recorders and flutes), rulers, and other such articles (Hausen 1981). During the 19th Century, cocuswood derived from Brya ebenus DC., fam. Leguminosae replaced boxwood as the favourite wood for flutes (Rockstro 1890, cited by Woods & Calnan 1976).

Boxwoods of commerce are derived from several botanically unrelated sources (Woods & Calnan 1976):

Buxus macowani Oliver — provides Cape boxwood and East London boxwood
Buxus sempervirens L. — provides Abassian boxwood, European boxwood, Iranian boxwood, and Turkey boxwood
Casearia praecox Griseb. (fam. Salicaceae) — provides Maracaibo boxwood, West Indian boxwood, and Venezuelan boxwood
[syn. Gossypiospermum praecox P.Wilson]
Gonioma kamassi E.Mey. (fam. Apocynaceae) — provides South African boxwood, Kamassi boxwood, and Knysna boxwood
Nauclea trillesii Merr. (fam. Rubiaceae) — provides West African Boxwood
[syn. Sarcocephalus diderrichii De Wild.] 

The leaves and twigs of Buxus sempervirens are poisonous when ingested (Lewis & Elvin-Lewis 1977). Buxus L. species are a source of steroidal alkaloids.

Members of this family may well be able to cause inflammation of the skin, but the nature of the skin reaction is not known.

Buxus sempervirens L.
Common Box

The juice of the plant can cause irritation and intense itching (Cheney, cited by White 1887). Acute dermatitis of the face followed application of a decoction of the plant to the scalp for alopecia (White 1887, White 1889). The identity of the plant material is, however, uncertain.

A watch maker who used box sawdust to clean gold developed asthma; a positive scratch test to the dust was observed (Markin 1930). Contact dermatitis from the leaves was reported by Oppenheim (1913). Reports of dermatitis from the wood (Nestler 1929, Nordin 1947) are of dubious validity.


  • Hausen BM (1981a) Woods Injurious to Human Health. A manual. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter [WorldCat]
  • Lewis WH, Elvin-Lewis MPF (1977) Medical Botany. Plants affecting man's health. New York: John Wiley [WorldCat]
  • Markin LE (1930) Boxwood sensitiveness. Journal of Allergy 1: 346.
  • Nestler A (1929) Hautreizende Pflanzen. Umschau 33: 611.
  • Nordin JV (1947) Yrkessjukdomar (Occupational Diseases) 2: 605.
  • Oppenheim M (1913) Buchsbaumdermatitis bei einem Gartner. Ă–ste SanitWes. 25: 1291.
  • White JC (1887) Dermatitis Venenata: an account of the action of external irritants upon the skin. Boston: Cupples and Hurd [doi] [WorldCat] [url] [url-2]
  • White JC (1889) Some unusual forms of dermatitis venenata. Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 121(24): 583-584
  • Woods B, Calnan CD (1976) Toxic woods. British Journal of Dermatology 95(Suppl 13): 1-97 [doi] [url] [url-2] [pmid]

Richard J. Schmidt

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