Common name: Boxwood

Scientific name: Mellissia begonfolia

IUCN status: Extinct?



This extract was written by John Charles Mellis, a Naturalist who spent time on the Island, and produced his famous work in 1875 on the natural history of the Island.


The native Boxwood, now an extremely rare plant, but still found growing on the south-eastern side of the Island, at Long Range and Stone Top, where it attains a height of about eight feet. The stems are very bent, crooked, and branching, seldom exceeding two inches in thickness. The leaves are large when the plant is young, but small as it grows older. Its pretty white blossoms appear in the month of October, under the leaves so as to be scarcely visible without lifting them up. A species of Succinea (Snail) feeds upon the plant. The dry branches are gathered by the natives for firewood.


Have we lost the St Helena boxwood?


arly this year we reported the re-discovery of the St Helena boxwood. A single individual growing amongst the boulders below Lots Wife. A thrilling discovery of a plant thought to have been extinct for over 100 years. Since then there has been no more news, so what has happened to the St Helena boxwood?

Much of the reason for the long silence was that the boxwood appeared to be dying. Not only this but the cuttings taken from the tree failed to root and no seeds had germinated. It was beginning to look like the boxwood might have only been re-discovered in time to become extinct again!

However, about 400 seeds were collected from the boxwood before it died back ( I won’t call it dead for the moment, I will remain a little optimistic, in case it re-sprouts after the winter rain). The seeds were divided to attempt germination in the hope that someone would successfully germinate them. Vanessa Thomas of the Environmental Conservation Section has some seeds, John Price, the Chief Education Officer had some seeds, some were sent to the Royal Horticultural Society, UK, and some were sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, UK. About half the seeds remain in storage, as a safety measure to be used once successful germinating techniques have been established.

So far, two seedlings have been germinated by John Price and eleven by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. A huge sigh of relief for all concerned as it is hoped that more seeds will germinate successfully. The Royal Botanic Gardens is interested in ways of helping the Island to undertake a recovery programme for the boxwood. The more young plants that can be raised the greater the long term chances of successfully re-establishing the boxwood on St Helena.

Hope has not been given up that seedlings will germinate in the wild location below Lots Wife. Hundreds of seeds are likely to remain in the soil and one day, under the right conditions they might germinate to re-establish the population.

Leaf samples from the original boxwood were sent to Dr Quentin Cronk at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. Dr Cronk has sequenced part of the genome of the boxwood. That is he has read a very small part (a genetic sequence) of the genetic code that makes or describes the boxwood. He has used this genetic sequence to compare it to other related plants. This comparison has shown that the St Helena boxwood is very closely related to a group of plants called Withania. Withania’s are found as far apart as India and Morocco. In India they are used for their medicinal drug properties. Dr Cronk is carrying out more research to pin down just how the St Helena boxwood, Mellisia begonifolia, is related to Withania. This is an important discovery, particularly if the St Helena boxwood also produces an important medicinal chemical and we can re-establish it again!

We have still got along way to go before we can say that the boxwood is no longer threatened with extinction. At least the picture is starting to look a little rosier for this remarkable and attractive endemic shrub.

Dr Rebecca Cairns-Wicks