Ever since the 1990s, gardeners have had to witness the destruction of their natural hedging projects due to the emergence of new fungal diseases targeting Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens). This has only been exacerbated with the introduction of the Box Tree Caterpillar (Cydalima perspectalis) that began appearing in gardens since 2011. (It was likely imported from the Far East in 2008.) This has affected many famous gardens and gardeners with even Monty Don witnessing the decimation of his 15 year ornamental hedge project. The blight is so deadly that the preferred option for many gardeners is to simply destroy the affected plants, as even plants that appear to recover are often destroyed with the re-emergence of the fungus. Others have abandoned Box entirely by switching to Box alternatives. However, one need not abandon box altogether as both problems are preventable and treatable, although the blight requires great time and effort to combat. Other less common problems include: Box Rust, Box Sucker, Box leaf-mining gall midge, box red spider mite and mussel scale.
Treating Box Blight
The two most serious forms of Box blight are Cylindrocladium buxicola and Volutella buxi, which often appear together. The former is highly destructive and can kill a plant in a matter of days. It is characteristic for producing discoloured leaves that are white on the underside with brown lesions on the top. In humid conditions, the fungus may result in black streaks on stems. The latter turns leaves yellow, darkening them to a shade of tan. How they enter the plant is also different as the Cylindrocladium enters through leaf cuticles in humid weather, while the Volutella requires a cut leaf surface. Both diseases are treated together with the same methods, although favourable growing conditions may allow the Box to recover from the Volutella without such an intervention.
Treating Box Blight is difficult, but can be done, although there is no guarantee of success, and it may be preferable to simply burn the affected box to safeguard the rest. Key is to prevent further contamination through disinfecting your tools, along with your clothes and boots that sticky spores can attach. We recommend that you use liquid copper to clean your tools. (It will kill the spores.) Now with the affected plant, it will need to be hard pruned in the affected areas, the branches burnt. The cut areas will then need to be treated with fungicides that contain tebuconazole or tebuconazole and trifloxystrobin. Any leaf debris should be picked up and destroyed and the top layer of soil removed and replaced. (Spores can stay in the soil for a whopping six years!) We recommend that you do not use fertiliser, as high nitrogen produces vulnerable growth. Instead, mushroom compost can be used as mulch to provide aeration and better microorganism balance. Finally, important to note is how the diseases are suited to humid conditions where air movement is restricted. Therefore it may be necessary to open up the compact framework of your box – a process known as halting clipping.
If you are unaffected by blight yet, or wish to prevent blight from entering new areas of the garden, prevention is better than adaption. When bringing in new box keep it quarantined and watch for symptoms. To do this, you can either leave it for six weeks untouched, or create humid conditions and leave it for 3 weeks. As the fungus thrives in such conditions, the blight will appear by then. (Sadly, some nurseries use fungicides to hide such symptoms, so it is necessary to be cautious.) Again, preventing humidity is key, and can be achieved through watering at the base of the plant rather than at the foliage, and by positioning the Box away from overhanging plants. Also important is not to clip when rain is forecast, or the plants wet. Finally, it is recommended that you provide adequate ventilation for better airflow, spacing the Box around 30 cm apart from each other.
A Look to the Future
For now it appears that box blight will run rampant over gardeners’ painstaking creations, but there are a number of blight resistant cultivars being developed in Europe that should appear on the market in a few years.
Treating Box Rust
Box rust (Puccinia buxi) is another common problem that affects Box and is symptomatic for orange pustules on both sides of the leaves. It is usually harmless and is treated through cutting off the affected areas or using fungicides for rust diseases such as tebuconazole, tebuconazole with trifloxystrobin and triticonazole.
Stopping the Box Tree Caterpillar
The Box Tree Caterpillar can leave patches of dieback much like box blight, and is distinctive for patches of webbing and frass droppings. Young Caterpillars are greenish-yellow with black heads, while the older ones have thick black and thin white stripes along the body and are up to 4cm long. Like most insects, they are most active during the warmer months, but can overwinter in webbing spun between leaves. To deal with them, they can either be picked off by hand, or dealt with insecticides that include ingredients such as pyrethrum, deltamethrin, lambda-cyhalothrin, and acetamiprid. (It is recommended that you do not spray plants in flower as this could deter potential pollinators.) Like box blight, prevention is preferable to adaptation so it is recommended that you check new plants in nurseries.
Other Box Problems Caused by Insects
- The Box Sucker (Psylla buxi) can distort your box by turning the leaves into mini-cabbages. (Oh, No!) The insects suck the Box’s sap and leave chemicals that retard new growth. It is not usually serious, but can be controlled with the above insecticides and clipping.
- The box leaf-mining gall midge (Monarthropalpus flavus) effects Box through causing a yellowish discoloration of the leaves. This discolouration is caused by the fly’s larvae that hatch and feed inside the foliage. It is, again, unserious and not usually worth treatment.
- Mussel scale (Lepidosaphes ulmi) are tiny mussel shaped sap-sucking insects that usually attach to bark, but on occasion will appear on leaves. Small infestations are not worth treating, but larger infestations can be treated with the above insecticides or organic sprays such plant oils. Such treatments are best applied in May and June when the next generation is emerging and vulnerable.
- The box red spider mite (Eurytetranychus buxi) is another sap-sucker that feeds on the undersides of leaves, causing a fine white mottling. While the mites are difficult to exterminate, they do not seriously damage the plant; the bugs can be treated with fatty acids and plant oil sprays applied continuously in five day intervals until the all the life-cycles of mites are wiped out.
Have you had trouble with box blight? We’d love to hear how you coped. Post in the comments below!
Jorge works in the Primrose marketing team. He is an avid reader, although struggles to stick to one topic!
His ideal afternoon would involve a long walk, before settling down for scones.
Jorge is a journeyman gardener with experience in growing crops.