How Box Hill got its name – and how I got the bug!

The glory of Lebanon will come to you. The juniper,the box-tree and the cypress together. To beautify the place of my sanctuary and I will make the place of my feet glorious.” Isaiah 60: 13

In spring time, when walking out on Box Hill there is a strange pungent smell emanating across the landscape. Many, myself included liken it to the smell of cat’s urine. The smell is actually from the Box trees, which give the hill its name.

Personally, I like the smell from these trees. Especially when I have been away travelling to foreign climes. It reminds me that I am home. For many however it is not the most pleasant of smells to experience whilst hiking out on the hill.

The Box is considered a sombre tree and is plant often associated with funeral wreaths. For many years, it was handed to mourners to throw onto the coffin at funerals.

However, for the vast majority of people in the UK its better known in a more cultivated form for its use as garden hedges and in topiary and decorative shrubs. The Romans introduced the plant because of both its hardiness in winter and the ease in which it could be shaped to suit the needs of gardeners.

Today, 40% of Britain’s wild box trees grow here. However, it was not always the case. Back in 1797, the owner of the hill and the surrounding lands was a Baronet. A man with more names than the average family tree, Sir Henry Paulet St John Mildmay. He had the bright idea of making money by selling off all the Box trees on the hill.

This was not such a daft idea because at that time the demand for Box trees was quite high.  Box trees have the heaviest wood of native trees in the UK. It will not float in water. (Except when green as sapling). Over the years it has been used in the production of boxes, musical instruments (the recorder), woodblock printing, chess pieces, carvings and one of the most interesting of all, the propellers of the famous WWII fighter plane the spitfire were made from Box wood.

When Sir Henry sold the trees off, by 1815 they had they had virtually disappeared from the hill. During the First World War, boxwood was cut for use in munitions. They still cling to the steep west-facing chalk slopes overlooking the River Mole today in the 21st century.

Their leaves range from medium green in colour to a very dark green in spring. Both male and female flowers grow on the same tree. The blossoms are small creamy white to yellow-green and it is then that the sweet fragrance of cat’s urine becomes prevalent and the surrounding hills are heavy with the smell of feral creatures. It comes as no surprise to know that parts of the tree are poisonous.

During the winter months, the evergreen trees waxy dark green leaves are one of the main contributors to the continual splash of green colour across the slopes.

Often when walking down the chalk slopes I would encounter a rather unusual bug that ranged in colour from lime green through to black and red resembling a squashed beetle. Over the years I came to realise, it was usually found on the slopes where the box-tree grew and sometimes I would find them in my home.

This I have now found out is the Box Hill Bug – a strange-looking bug almost triangular in shape that was at one stage only recorded here on the hill. However, it has also been found in France. Its name of course because it feeds on the leaves of the Box trees. I noticed quite often they are black and scarlet in colour and appear to fly but I think this is more a case of them catapulting themselves from leaf to leaf or blade of grass to blade of grass.

I have lived up on this hill for 15 years I and I am amazed to find out just how many unique species of fauna and flora we have here on the hill. For a tree that has long been associated with death the Box tree seem to be a haven for life and to see such a rare species of bug thriving on its branches is good indeed.

Although I am not so sure about the little creatures wandering around my living room! Unusual as they are.

Next week I go in search of the Ash Black Slug – England’s largest slug and the Purse Web Spider the UK’s only native tarantula both residents of the hill.

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