Since prehistory, people have found a use for its timber and foliage and managed Box trees to serve various purposes. Historic place names in the Chilterns refer to Box, including Bix in Oxfordshire, Boxmoor in Hertfordshire and Box End in Bedfordshire.
In Neolithic times, it was used for charcoal and digging sticks. Roman villa sites hold evidence of Box hedging in gardens and Box leaves have also been found in Roman burial sites. Chaucer, writing in the 14th century, mentions a 'boxtre pipere', with later centuries seeing the development of new instruments made from Boxwood such as the chalumeau, flageolet and clarinet. More recently, the Victorian printing industry used engraved Boxwood to produce illustrations in newspapers and books.
The historic sources of Box timber was researched by the Chilterns Box Woodland Project. Newspapers dating from the 1800s and 1900s reveal that Box timber was being traded in the Chilterns and the 1748 diary of Pehr Kalm notes that Box was harvested at places such as Ashridge to supply London markets. Demand was so great that there were regular foreign imports into London in the late 1700s and, a century later, concerns were being raised about how few Box woodlands remained in places such as the Black Sea coast. Unsustainable harvesting could equally have applied to Chilterns woodlands and so the trees and woods that we see today in the Chilterns represent but a portion of a historically more extensive resource and landscape feature.
A detailed timeline and other documents about the historic uses of Box were produced by the Chilterns Box Woodland Project in 2013-2015 and are available as downloads from this website. There is little specific mention of Box in historic documents so gaps remain in our knowledge.
Box has attracted the praises of well-known figures including Charles Rothschild (nature conservationist), Thomas Bewick (engraver and print-maker) and John Evelyn (forestry writer).
Ancient Box trees are historic features in themselves, persisting for centuries in some locations in the Chilterns. Places where old Box trees are growing are rich with history – churchyards, designed parkland and gardens, ancient woodland sites, historic downland.
A variety of objects were made from Boxwood in the past. The density of Boxwood makes it hard-wearing and ideal for fine engraving. It also has a golden colour.
Everyday functional items included lace making bobbins, printing blocks, school rulers, mangles for straw plaiting and tool handles. More valuable and decorative uses included chess pieces, furniture inlays and musical instruments. Modern uses are limited to specialist items such as woodwind instruments and decorative objects.