This attractive plant belongs to a family of over thirty species
of trees, shrubs and herbs belonging to seven genera. The members
are widely distributed throughout the temperate counties of the
globe, excluding America and Australia. Members are characterized
by simple, evergreen leaves, opposite or alternating, no stipule
and male and female flowers are separate (either on the same or
B. macowanii mainly originates from the Eastern Cape forests,
occurring in the coastal belt extending to southern Natal (up to
Oribi Gorge). It was previously thought to occur only from Alexandria
to Lusikisiki, seldom more than 32 km and often within 9 km from
the sea. However it is now known to extend to the eastern Northern
Province where it has been collected in a wooded kloof in the Waterberg
The Cape box is a small, very slow-growing tree up to about 9m
tall. It has a clean slender, greeny-brown stem of up to 30 cm in
diameter. Shiny green leaves create the crown. The twigs are angled,
slightly hairy when young and smooth when old. The leaves, are opposite
and entire. They are arranged at right angles to each other and
are up to 2,5 cm long. They are oval to widely lance-shaped, with
a bluntly pointed or round apex and are narrow at the base. They
are deeply green, leathery, smooth both sides, with the lateral
veins scarcely visible.
The flowers bloom from late winter to spring (July to October),
and male and female flowers are borne separately on the same tree.
This is called a "monoecious" situation. The male flowers
are held in short heads in the axils of the leaves and the female
are usually single or occasionally grouped. The fruit is a small
brown capsule, about 7mm in diameter and holds shiny black seeds.
Fruit ripens from late summer to early winter (February to June).
Once ripe, the fruit splits to release the seeds.
The wood of B. macowanii is very beautiful. It is yellow,
hard, fine-grained and has a smooth texture. It is used for clay-modeling
tools, musical instruments, model-making and was once in great demand
for engraving; especially for printing. It is also used for firewood.
Although much of South Africa's best timber was exploited in the
early days of settlement, the Cape Box was strangely enough neglected
until 1883 when it was only used for firewood. Then from 1886 onwards
export trade of this species with Europe began and thus its exploitation.
The wood of the Cape box resembles that of Buxus sempervirens,
which is the European Box.
Growing Buxus macowanii
The Cape box can be grown from seeds, although it is very slow.
Many of the seeds are parasitized, but when collected early before
infection and stored in a cool dry place, they can be saved. This
plant makes a very good pot plant as well as a low hedge, tolerating
deep shade, and deserves to be cultivated far more widely.
The species name of this plant 'macowanii' honors Dr Peter
MacOwan, Director of the Cape Town Botanic Gardens, and later Professor
of Botany at the South African College, and Government Botanist
in charge of the Herbarium until 1905. The word 'Buxus' is an ancient
Latin word meaning "box".
- Palmer, E. and Pitman, N. 1972. Trees of Southern Africa, A.A.
Balkema Publishers, Cape Town.
- Pooley, E. 1993. The Complete Guide to Trees of Natal, Zululand
and Transkei, Natal Flora Publication Trust, Durban.
- Palgrave, K. C. 1977. Trees of Southern Africa, C. Struik Publishers,
Mhlonishwa D. Dlamini and Sharon Turner
Witwatersrand National Botanical Garden