The Scent of Boxwoods

The smell of American boxwoods has always stirred memories from my childhood growing up in Southern Maryland. Boxwoods don’t have much of an aroma in the winter, unless you break the branches, but when the sun hits their leaves and warms the oils within, you get the musty and slightly acrid scent of damp shadows that surround old houses and covered porches. Some find it unpleasant, but it reminds me of summer afternoons on my grandmother’s porch swing and games of hide and seek that went on well after dark.

The American boxwood has tiny, dark green, crisp leaves that perfectly complement the mottled red of old brick paths and walls.  They can be low shrubs, tall thick hedges, and when left untended, they will grow into wispy trees that can reach above the first floor of the old homes they surround. I remember following many a pathway surrounded by their dark green limbs leading to front doors, back porches, or hidden gardens . Southern Maryland was one of the original Maryland settlements and has a rich physical history of old homes, farm buildings, and churches that persists today. Bricks and boxwoods have always seemed to me to be a part of that tapestry.

The original capital of Southern Maryland, St. Mary’s City, is located on the St. Mary’s river and is host to St. Mary’s College of Southern Maryland, where I attended college.  It contains many historic sites, including the old State House which was first built in 1676 but then reconstructed in 1934 for the 300 year anniversary of Maryland’s founding. Since then, many more sites have been discovered and buildings restored.  As a child and a teen, I attended a number of tours, dinners, concerts, and a few Shakespearean festivals that took place in and around the many historic buildings.  One year the HMS Pinafore was performed on a re-creation of the English trading ship, the Maryland Dove, which was docked on the river just below the state house.   My husband and I were married in St. Mary’s City, in the Trinity Episcopal Church, built in 1638 overlooking that same river.

On warm summer days, just outside my front door, there is a faint scent of boxwoods mixing with the sweetness of gardenias and the rich dark earth beneath them. It reminds me of humid nights spent chasing fireflies or looking for frogs in the shade around my grandfather’s pond. Sometimes it brings back chilly nights playing hide and seek in an old garden with the promise of hot apple cider and maybe some oyster stew when we grew too cold to stay outside. There are a lot of sensations, smells, tastes, that I associate with my childhood and the scent of boxwoods is a powerful reminder.