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Garden Talk

Row of Little Missy Boxwood in the Page-Rollins White Garden

Botanical name: Buxus microphylla ‘Little Missy’
Common name: 'Little Missy' boxwood
Family name: Buxaceae (Boxwood Family)
Native range: Cultivated origin
Location in Duke Gardens: Page-Rollins White Garden
USDA Hardiness Zones: 6-9

By Katherine Hale

Marketing & Communications Assistant


“Thinking outside the box” encourages us to adopt creative solutions, but when it comes to landscaping, it’s easy to see why people have stuck with boxwood (Buxus spp.) for so many years. There really is nothing else quite like it in the temperate horticultural toolbox.

close-up of the deep green leaves of a boxwood 'Justin Brouwers' shrub

The backbone of formal European garden design, boxwood are most commonly used as hedges to mark the boundaries of either entire gardens or individual beds, depending on the design. Their quick growth, evergreen nature and tolerance for regular pruning also makes them a popular choice for topiary and outdoor labyrinths, both of which must be trimmed and maintained regularly for best effect.

In North America, boxwood is also a common foundation plant, especially around older houses, because of its versatility and tolerance for a wide range of growing conditions. Historically, boxwood was also used for cabinets, musical instruments and chess pieces; the term “box” originally referred to any receptacle made from its wood, before expanding to encompass a container of any material, including the now ubiquitous cardboard.

 Although they are often overlooked in favor of the showier flowering trees, shrubs, and rotating seasonal annuals, boxwood hedges are an essential component of the Page-Rollins White Garden, grounding the central beds firmly in place with their solid uniform perimeter.

However, visitors will notice a shift in the coming weeks, as curator Jason Holmes and the horticultural staff of the Doris Duke Center Gardens update the hedge for the first time since 2012, swapping out the old ‘Justin Brouwers’ plants (Buxus sinica var. insularis ‘Justin Brouwers’) with the fresh new ‘Little Missy’ boxwood (Buxus microphylla ‘Little Missy’).

Why replace the hedges now? Although technically a dwarf variety, the ‘Justin Brouwers’ hedge is now too tall, blocking the view of the annuals inside, especially when the annuals are newly planted. Their branch structure is such that they only form leaves on the outer portions of the plant, so pruning them down to a more acceptable height would expose unsightly bare stems for weeks or months until the new leaves emerged to cover them. In addition, because of high levels of organic matter in the soil, the height of the bed is gradually increasing over time, swamping the stems of the current hedge and making them more susceptible to winter bronzing and other maladies.

close-up of the green leaves of a boxwood 'Little Missy' shrub

The solution is a switch to ‘Little Missy’, an even smaller dwarf cultivar that tops out at 12 to 14 inches, reducing the likelihood they will require pruning in order to remain low to the ground. However, if shearing turns out to be necessary in the future, the leaves of ‘Little Missy’ are equally spaced along the stems instead of being concentrated at the top of each branch or twig, which allows for much more aesthetically pleasing results immediately afterward. As a bonus, the new cultivar also has better immunity to boxwood blight, a fatal disease caused by the fungus Cylindrocladium buxicola, which is unfortunately widespread in our area.

“Thinking outside the box” is excellent advice for navigating tricky situations—but in this case, a simple substitution will do the trick.

More Garden Talk Highlights

Photos from top: A row of newly planted 'Little Missy' boxwood in the Page-Rollins White Garden, with the soon-to-be-replaced 'Justin Brouwers' hedge visible in the background, photographed by Jason Holmes; close-up of the Justin Brouwers' and 'Little Missy' hedges, by Orla Swift.