Plant of the Week: GEM BOX® and STRONGBOX® Inkberry holly

Looking for a new kind of evergreen hedge? Even if you haven’t yet been affected by boxwood blight or the boxwood tree moth, you should be aware of those threats and be ready to pivot as needed.

Inkberry holly (Ilex glabra) is a great substitute for boxwood in many situations. Full disclosure: it’s not quite as deer-resistant and not quite as shade-tolerant, but it will do pretty well overall. Plus, it’s great for wet sites. This plant isn’t bothered at all by wet feet. And then there’s the added bonus that it doesn’t stink! I’m a confessed crazy cat lady, but wow, sometimes a boxwood planting is overwhelming.

Strongbox® (left) and Gem Box® (right) are two compact selections of our native Ilex glabra.

They both grow about 2-3′ tall and wide. They’re pretty similar, although Strongbox® has larger leaves and maybe a little more squat than Gem Box. They are both dense, well-branched varieties that avoid that bare-legged look that can plague other varieties and welcome the heavy shearing that boxwood fans often enjoy.

Either will grow in full sun or part shade and is hardy in USDA 5-9.

One final point in Ilex glabra’s favor: it’s way faster growing than boxwood. These days when it’s becoming harder to find plants, that’s a real benefit that your local nursery is hopefully taking advantage of.

Boxwood is great, but…

It’s got problems.

There are plenty of reasons why boxwood Buxus is a landscape staple, but as it faces multiple pest and disease threats, the horticulture world need to adapt. While we’re certainly working hard as an industry to find controls and more disease-resistant varieties, we’ve got to be ready to try new genera, too.

Think of it like food: when a favorite item is unavailable or out of season, top chefs find a way to make gourmet meals with other ingredients. Green industry professionals can do the same. These two Ilex glabra are strong contenders as alternatives to boxwood. Plus, they’re a native genus, something that’s more and more interesting to people not just on Earth Day but every day.

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