Credit: Richard Hebda

Falsebox is our province’s only common native member of the staff-tree family (Celastraceae), which includes the American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) and species of the widely grown shrub Euonymus. An evergreen shrub, falsebox spreads or grows erect to an unassuming 1 m (39 in.) tall. Flexible brownish-red stems bear oval, loosely spaced, leathery leaves. Each glossy-green leaf is about 1 to 3 cm (1⁄2 to 11⁄2 in.) long with small toothlets evenly spaced along the margin.

In early to mid spring (starting early March in Victoria), masses of tiny flowers erupt from mini-buds all along the stems. Each bloom is scarcely 3 to 4 mm (1⁄8 in.) wide, but the clusters provide an attractive maroon show. Each flower has four tiny sepals beneath four coloured petals; if you look closely, you’ll see they are all attached to a circular greenish disk. A single pistil and four yellow stamens contrast brightly with the maroon background. Dark-brown seeds form later in the year in the small capsule.

The geographic range of this species includes all of southern British Columbia as far north as Terrace, except for some of the hot dry interior zones. You can find it as far south as California and eastward to the Rocky Mountains and even Texas. Typically it occupies low and mid elevations, favouring medium- to well-drained sites in conifer forests, clearings and, occasionally, in rocky openings.

Though it has not yet become popular with gardeners, several botanical writers, such as Arthur Kruckeberg in his Gardening with Native Plants in the Pacific Northwest (University of Washington Press), have praised falsebox as a plant worthy of a place in gardens. Well-drained to moderately moist settings are ideal, and the choice of sites is wide. A fine setting would be the base of a large tree or the edge of a conifer group. Other possibilities include shrub borders in front of or among rhododendrons. Try it in a partially shaded to shady rock garden. Falsebox is a good choice for low hedging to mark the edges of a path, a setting where the gloss-green leaves really get to show their best. Underplanting arbutus trees works well too. In a natural setting, plants are best grown in their natural form; grown in hedges, pruning encourages dense, full growth.

Plants are easily raised from cuttings collected just before or after flowering. Remove a twig about 10 cm (4 in.) or so long and insert it in a pot of peaty soil mix. Place in a cool greenhouse or in a plastic bag. Roots can appear within two to three weeks under ideal conditions. Branches can also be layered in mossy moist soil; once rooted, carefully remove from the parent shrub. Collect seeds as soon as they are ripe, rinse off the thin fleshy covering and sow in porous peaty soil for germination over the winter. Seeds have been known to sprout after 10 years of cool storage.

Falsebox is an important browse plant for deer. Southern interior First Nations used it medicinally. Slightly boiled leaves were made into a poultice for swellings and to reduce pain on any part of the body. An infusion of the plant could be used to heal broken bones, treat internal ailments and tuberculosis. Today, falsebox is sought for flower arrangements and its populations near urban centres are being degraded.

For those who might need a little encouragement to grow a native hedging plant, be aware that privet has become an invasive species in southwest B.C., popping up unpleasantly in thickets and woodlands. By planting falsebox, you can have your greenery and at the same time protect our natural environment.

Falsebox (Paxistima myrsinites) is hardy to zone 3

An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.