boxwood

Where the Story Begins

Young Paul with his mother Mildred Saunders.

Young Paul with his mother Mildred Saunders.

Paul and Mildred looking at some Boxwood in the garden.

Paul and Mildred looking at some Boxwood in the garden.

On a bright April day in 1947, 13-year-old Paul Saunders joined his mother Mildred as she pruned the English boxwood hedges around the front porch of their home.  Even though baseball was Paul’s favorite pastime, he turned down a game with his friends playing in a nearby cow pasture to shadow his mother, an enthusiastic gardener and passionate member of the Nelson County Garden Club.  Paul had learned how to propagate shrubs from his science teacher and local nurseryman, Mr. Atto.  Paul gathered 77 cuttings as his mother snipped, and planted them in a nearby patch on the northern side of an eroded hill, a perfect spot with a thicket of pines overhead for shade, and a spring close by for water.

Paul enlisted the help of his friend “Boochie” White to become his partner in the venture.  Boochie was responsible for most of the watering because he lived close to the plants.  Of those 77 cuttings, 25 rooted and became the genesis of the Saunders family’s commercially-grown boxwood nursery.

The boxwood patch next to the hen house.

The boxwood patch next to the hen house.

The following July Paul bought out Boochie’s interest for $1.00 and moved the fledgling nursery to a new location that offered richer soil and a water spigot.  Buoyed with the success of the first planting, he then planted 1,000 cuttings of both English and American boxwood.  “I could water them daily with a water hose from the spigot at the hen house,” Paul reflected.  “My little boxwood nursery became part of my 4-H Home Grounds Beautification project.  I stuck more cuttings in rooting beds near an old woodpile.  John Whitehead, our County Farm Agent, encouraged me as the nursery grew.”  Paul remembers many people asking him, “What are you going to do with all those boxwood?”  “I don’t know,” he replied, and went on planting.

A young Robert, John, and Bennett Saunders checking the boxwood cuttings.

A young Robert, John, and Bennett Saunders checking the boxwood cuttings.

A young Tatum working in the nursery.

A young Tatum working in the nursery.

Year after year, Paul continued to plant more boxwood and as the nursery grew, so did the family.  Paul met his wife Tatum in 1955 in Franklin County at a 4-H party.  He recalls that on one of their early dates, she helped him strip boxwood cuttings to prepare for planting.  They married and eventually welcomed seven sons to their family.  The boys (four of whom run the Saunders Brothers nursery today) all have stories of what it was like to grow up on the farm.  “If you ate at the dinner table at night, you were expected to be at work the next day at 8 A.M., all days except Sunday,” reflects Bennett Saunders.  “No exceptions, even for friends of the family.”

Paul with sons Massie and Tom.

Paul with sons Massie and Tom.

John and Sam Saunders walking through the nursery in the snow.

John and Sam Saunders walking through the nursery in the snow.

Plants were first marketed locally, but as the nursery grew, boxwood began to be shipped all over Virginia.  One day in 1962, Paul received a phone call from the National Park Service, asking to buy 1,500 boxwood.  Paul asked where the plants were going, but he was told their destination was confidential.  Eventually the word got out that the boxwood were headed to the White House.  President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline had recently returned from an international trip where they were inspired by the formal European gardens, and wanted to renovate the White House Rose Garden.  The 1,500 boxwood used in the renovation can still be seen from the windows of the Oval Office today.

Boxwood being loaded to go to The White House

Boxwood being loaded to go to The White House

Saunders Boxwood being planted in the Rose Garden

Saunders Boxwood being planted in the Rose Garden

The nursery continued to expand to the farm’s fertile river bottoms and hillsides.  All was well and sights were set on a bright future until a warm August night in 1969 when Mother Nature threw a monkey wrench in the plan.  In less than five hours, through the middle of the night, Hurricane Camille dumped over 20 inches of rain on the mountains of Nelson County, Virginia.  The devastation and loss of life in the county were horrendous (1% of the population perished).  Mudslides, flooding, and avalanches of debris covered the area.  The raging Tye River destroyed nearly 10 acres of Saunders plants and land.  Although the damage was devastating, a few boxwood that were planted on higher ground, survived.  This nucleus gave birth to a container nursery at Tye Brook Farm.

Paul walking through a crop of boxwood.

Paul walking through a crop of boxwood.

In the late 60s and 70s boxwood were moved down to the packing shed in peach bins, where they were then loaded on to trucks.

In the late 60s and 70s boxwood were moved down to the packing shed in peach bins, where they were then loaded on to trucks.

Although boxwood had been used as a common landscape plant for many years, only two varieties, English and American, were commonly used in landscapes.  That changed in the 1970s as boxwood came to face more and more disease problems.  As a result, Paul proceeded to look at different varieties for a solution.  “We began to see these problems and started searching for other strains that we could substitute.  I talked to people all over the boxwood-growing areas, asking their advice as to their choices of the best varieties,” recalled Paul.  “There was no real consensus; what was doing well in one area was not necessarily doing well in another area.  In order to find out which variety was best suited in a particular area, we established evaluation sites from Connecticut to Chicago, south to Alabama and Georgia, and many areas in between, donating thousands of boxwood to the sites to get the project started.” Working with many public and private gardens, universities, and researchers, the National Boxwood Trials were born.  Over 60 participants reported their observations of a variety of cultivars in two basic categories, plant attractiveness and grower friendliness.  The results were published annually, with the final report being published in 2011. Paul describes the Boxwood Trials as one of his proudest accomplishments. 

Three generations in the field learning about boxwood. Paul and his grandsons, Tye and Marshall, are joined by their father Bennett, his wife Lynn and Paul’s wife Tatum.

Three generations in the field learning about boxwood. Paul and his grandsons, Tye and Marshall, are joined by their father Bennett, his wife Lynn and Paul’s wife Tatum.

From one 13 year-old boy’s love of a charming little evergreen, grew a family business dedicated to innovation. The Saunders family continues to do research through Saunders Genetics, LLC. to find the best boxwood to flourish in each of a wide diversity of micro-environments.

Paul with one of his favorite boxwood cultivars.

Paul with one of his favorite boxwood cultivars.

Basic Biology and Management of Boxwood Blight

Since Boxwood Blight was found in the United States in 2011, researchers and growers have been diligently working to understand this pathogen. Although the disease has spread to 28 states since its initial identification in North Carolina, there have been many breakthroughs in the understanding of the biology of the disease and how to control it.

Map of states with known cases of Boxwood Blight as of 2018

Map of states with known cases of Boxwood Blight as of 2018

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Boxwood Blight is a fungal disease caused by the pathogen Cylindrocladium buxicola (syn. Calonectria pseudonaviculata). The pathogen attacks the foliage of boxwood, first appearing as black or dark brown spots on the leaves. In a few days, those spots will develop yellow to brown rings around them and cover the leaf. Infected leaves fall off the plant in a matter of a week or so, and stems near infected leaves will develop streaked black lesions or cankers.

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The disease is most prevalent when environmental conditions favor warm temperatures between 60° - 80° F and high humidity. Leaves that are continually wet from constant irrigation, prolonged rain, or high humidity are prime targets for the pathogen. When conducive conditions subside, the fungus will go dormant in the form of black streaks in the limbs of affected plants or debris. The fungus can lie inactive for long periods of time and reappear when conditions become conducive again.

Here you can see the north side of the plant getting the disease first. There is almost an exact line because the north side gets less sunlight and dries more slowly.

Here you can see the north side of the plant getting the disease first. There is almost an exact line because the north side gets less sunlight and dries more slowly.

The Boxwood Blight spore is heavy and sticky, and is typically introduced through contact with infected plants, debris, tools and equipment, clothing, animals, water splash, or other means of direct contact.

Currently, the only known hosts of the pathogen are members of the Buxaceae family, Buxus sp. (Boxwood), Sarcococca sp. (Sweetbox), and Pachysandra sp (Spurge).

With a better understanding of the disease lifecycle and its optimal conditions, there are many practical ways to prevent and control the spread.

Because the spores can spread from plant to plant on clothing, tools, or splashing water, anyone working around boxwood should start with clean clothes, shoes and tools. Make sure to properly clean tools and equipment with disinfecting agents like alcohol, bleach, or Lysol before and after use in boxwood. If you are a landscaper moving from site to site, you should use a disinfectant on clothing and shoes, or use disposable pant and boot covers between sites. Starting with and maintaining clean equipment can remove the pathogen from ever entering a new site. 

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Spores of the pathogen can also spread through water so it is best to avoid overhead irrigation when possible. Facilitating an irrigation schedule that allows just a 3 hour period of dryness for the leaves can significantly reduce the spread of the disease. When there are periods of dry foliage, the leaves are far less likely to become infected, even if the spores are introduced. Never use overhead irrigation in the late afternoon because leaves will remain wet all night. Maintain good air flow when planting and pruning the plants to ensure leaf drying. Recent studies have also shown that mulching every two years or so with at least an inch of mulch around the base of the plant can lessen water splashing.

Studies have shown that, when tested in a lab, all boxwood cultivars show some susceptibility to blight. However, many field tests have shown significant differences in tolerance between cultivars. We have observed certain cultivars, particularly the microphylla, insularis, and harlandii species show strong tolerance compared to those with sempervirens genetics. Shape and structure of the boxwood also affect each plant’s tolerance. Open, more upright plants tend to be more tolerant while short, compact cultivars seem to be more susceptible. We believe this is because the shorter plants that are close to the ground get more water splashing on them. Research is ongoing to discover additional cultivars that will be tolerant to boxwood blight. 

A photo of  Buxus  ‘SB 108’ NewGen Independence™ next to an American Boxwood, planted on the same site for 3 years.

A photo of Buxus ‘SB 108’ NewGen Independence™ next to an American Boxwood, planted on the same site for 3 years.

The exciting results we have seen with varietal tolerance inspired us to create the NewGen™ Boxwood brand. We believe the combination of tolerant varieties and best management practices like those we have outlined are the future of an industry that doesn’t fear Boxwood Blight. For more information check out our education page on Boxwood Blight and subscribe for monthly newsletters filled with the most relevant and up-to-date information and research on boxwood.

 More examples of Boxwood Blight damage and examples on how the pathogen moves:

Who is NewGen™?

Easily one of the most recognized garden plants, boxwood (Buxus sp.) have been gracing formal gardens for thousands of years and are considered one of the oldest ornamental plants. As slow-growing evergreen shrubs, these plants have always been a symbol of a gardener’s commitment and investment to a green space. Boxwood have held their reputation for many years because they are low maintenance, provide structure to a garden, and have few pests and disease pressures.Unfortunately, this reputation took a hard hit in 2011 with the introduction of Boxwood Blight in the U.S. and many growers became concerned about the beloved plant.

Saunders Brothers in Piney River, VA, a family-run nursery with a rich history of boxwood production, responded to this threat by investing in research to find a solution. Their experience in trials for resistance to Boxwood Leafminer, helped them to work with researchers and universities to begin testing for varietal tolerance of Boxwood Blight. After testing over 150 varieties, it was clear certain varieties excelled. Saunders Brothers was excited to have found solutions to a potentially devastating disease. They felt they needed to share these genetics with the industry. This sparked the creation of NewGen™ Boxwood.

NewGen™ aims to be the standard bearer of a distinctively better family of boxwood. This new generation of plants promises better tolerance of Boxwood Blight, better resistance to Boxwood Leafminer, and a WOW factor in the landscape.

“To meet the threat of rising pest and disease pressures, as well as maintain boxwood as the foundation of the landscape, we felt we needed a new approach,” says Bennett Saunders, General Manager of Saunders Genetics. “We’ve focused our attention on new and improved genetics, more thorough testing methods and protocols, partnering with like-minded growers, and establishing a distinguished brand identity. We believe NewGen™ represents the future of boxwood for the industry.”

By maintaining bio-secure testing methods and standards, we hope to continue making introductions of superior plants that maintain brand standards. We aim to establish a regional network of premier licensed growers and propagators to share these plants in landscapes all over the United States. We will dedicate 2019 to introducing the program to the industry and its customers, building production on our two initial selections. Plants are scheduled to be available for sale in the spring of 2020. At this time, we are partnering with 4 growers to distribute the product line: Overdevest Nurseries, NJ; Prides Corner Farms, CT; Saunders Brothers Nursery, VA; and Willoway Nurseries, OH.

NewGen™ Boxwood intends to raise the bar for boxwood to meet the changing dynamics of a new generation of the American garden and gardener.

Pictured is the NewGen™ team, Lindsay Day (left) Marketing Coordinator and Bennett Saunders (right) General Manager of Saunders Genetics.

Pictured is the NewGen™ team, Lindsay Day (left) Marketing Coordinator and Bennett Saunders (right) General Manager of Saunders Genetics.