Hammond-Harwood House volunteers have been busy this week creating table arrangements and wreaths from the almost 200-year old Boxwoods from our own garden. The heart-shaped Boxwood “walk” (Buxus sempervirens) located along the back wall of the garden, was planted by Frances Loockerman in the spring of 1825. It is thought Frances planted them to express her affection for her husband Richard and her dedication to the house—certainly a touching gesture since Boxwoods represent longevity and immortality.
Sentiments like those Frances had for Boxwood date from well before biblical times. Fossilized Boxwood leaves and fruit have been discovered that date from 22 million years ago. It was a highly prized hard wood by the Greeks and Romans used for making jewelry boxes, combs, utensils, flutes, and other objects. In Pagan tradition, wreaths were created from Boxwood to celebrate the Winter Solstice. Since these shrubs are evergreens, it is easy to connect the symbolic relationship between their quality of remaining green and nature’s winter “death.” Later on, Boxwood became the wood of choice for the English due to its smooth grain and, when dried, its minimal shrinkage.
Though not native to America, the Boxwood found its way to North America via Europe in the mid-1600s. It was grown in formal gardens and its wood was used for utilitarian items, The leaf sprigs, however, were not part of any sort of holiday décor. Many early Americans did not celebrate Christmas, as these celebrations were illegal during parts of the 17th century and were culturally forbidden or rare in former Puritan colonies due to their association with paganism and idolatry, nor was there scriptural reference for celebrating Christmas. With other cultures and religions migrating into the colonies of Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania, the Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans and eventually the Quakers began to celebrate the traditional Christmas season with both religious and secular observances.
Decorations for the holidays were composed of whatever natural materials were available, such as evergreens of boxwood, pine and holly, berries, and perhaps a forced blossom, accompanied by candles.
The beautiful wreaths and table arrangements made here at Hammond-Harwood House are created with fresh-picked Boxwood that has been carefully tended and diligently checked to insure against any blight or disease. Over time, parcels of the Hammond-Harwood House land were sold and so only the top “crown” of the Boxwood heart remains. The Boxwood by the brick path across the back of the house were planted in the 1940s. Along with Frances’ hedge, these plantings are robust and we welcome your visit to admire their beauty and longevity.
American Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), 1825
Lucinda Dukes Edinberg, Curator
https://www.boxwoodgarden.com/introduction-to-boxwood.htm “Boxwood Garden: Hedges, Edges and Topiary”
Norfolk Town Assembly, “Holiday Traditions in Colonial American and the New Republic,” December 8, 2019. https://www.norfolktowneassembly.org/post/holiday-traditions-in-colonial-america-and-the-early-republic
With thanks to Hammond-Harwood House Researcher Judy Homorsky.