BOXTREE, Buxus L. spp., šemšād, common name for numerous species of evergreen shrubs or trees of the family Buxaceae.
The species B. sempervirens Wall. (= B. hyrcana Pojark.), designated as šemšād-e jangalī (forest boxtree) in modern Persian botanical terminology (see Ghahreman, III, no. 160), grows wild in lowland or plain forests of the Caspian provinces of Gīlān (including Ṭavāleš), Māzandarān, and Gorgān (ibid.; Pārsā, IV, p. 1284; Rechinger, 1966, pp. 3-4; Ṯābetī, pp. 167-68), where it forms (especially in Nūr and Kojūr areas) dense groves or constitutes the undergrowth of Quercus castaneaefolia, maple, and silk tree associations (Ṯābetī, loc. cit.). It sometimes grows to a height of 10 m and a girth of 50 cm (ibid., Sāʿī, I, p. 177, indicates 8-10 m as usual maximum height and 25 cm as maximum viable circumference). It is also grown as an ornamental evergreen border or hedge plant. Local names reported by these authors and others include šemšād, šūmšād (Āstārā), kīš (Gīlān, Ṭavāleš), šūšār, šīšār (Rūdsar, Rāmsar, Šahsavār; in Sāʿī, loc. cit.: šūšād, šīšād), šār, šar (Nūr, Šīrgāh), šahr (Kojūr, Āmol; cf. Ḥodūd al-ʿālam, comp. 372/982, ed. Sotūda, p. 145, concerning the natural and industrial products of Āmol: “and čūb-e šemšād [boxwood], which is not found anywhere else in the world”), and šešār (Sārī). Šemšād-e anārī (lit., “the box looking like a pomegranate shrub”) is the specific name applied by gardeners in Tehran to some varieties of B. sempervirens often used by them for hedging flower beds and edging walks in formal gardens (Ṯābetī, loc. cit.).
The B. sempervirens yields a valuable wood, which is lemon yellow, fine-grained, very heavy and hard, and susceptible to a fine polish. This wood was (and, probably to some extent, is) used by local (rural) craftsmen in Iran (especially in Gīlān and Qazvīn) to make such articles as hair combs (for box- and pear-wood comb-making craft, see Wulff, Crafts, pp. 99-101), various spoons, ladles (including large sherbet spoons), forks, cigarette-holders, “middles” (mīānas) for hookahs, qand-ə lāks (in Gīlān, a special round tray with raised edge and a central anvil-like bump, on which loaf or lump sugar is broken into small pieces with a special axe), and fifes (regarding Gīlān, Pāyanda, p. 487, deplores that the boxwood craft, practiced “until several years ago,” has vanished). In 1183/1769-70, ʿAqīlī Ḵorāsānī, p. 230, s.v. baqs (Ar. for šemšād), reported that from boxwood “are made thin sheets on which the Koran or other books are written.” Asadī’s statement (Loḡat-e fors, ed. Eqbāl, pp. 124-25, ed. Mojtabāʾī and Ṣādeqī, p. 90), that “the šemšār [an obsolete variant of šemšād] is a hard wood the tree of which is not very tall and from which tools are made for artisans,” indicates the long use of the boxwood in Iran.
In Persian, the word šemšād (Mid. Pers. šemšār/šamšār, which, according to the Bundahišn [TD2, p. 116.10; ed. and tr. Anklesaria, 16.8, pp. 146-47], like the cypress, the plane-tree, the aspen, the tamarisk, etc., belongs to the category of perennial shrubs and trees which do not yield anything suitable for human food) also designates some deciduous and evergreen shrubs or trees of the genus Euonymus L. (= Evonymus Tourn.), the spindle tree (family Celastraceae). According to Rechinger (1969, pp. 1-4) and Ṯābetī (pp. 338-43), this genus is represented in Iran by four native species common in most Caspian forests and in the Arasbārān region (Sāʿī, I, p. 276).
E. europaea L. (= E. floribundus Stev. = E. vulgaris Mill.) is found in Arasbārān, where it is called šīmšīr (and probably by the Turkish name bārūt-āḡājī, lit. “gunpowder wood”), and in Āstārā; also native to the Caucasus and Turkestan; deciduous; it is esteemed for its hard dense wood, from the charcoal of which drawing crayons are made.
E. latifolia (L.) Mill. (= E. europaeus L. var. latifolius L.); deciduous; habitat: Caspian forests from Arasbārān and Āstārā to Gorgān; also found in the Caucasus; local names include gīlās-e waḥšī (in Arasbārān, lit. “wild cherry,” probably an allusion to its pink capsules when ripe; cf. the other name gūšvārak below; an unlikely vernacular name for that area, but recorded by Ṯābetī, p. 341, and Ghahreman, VIII, no. 938), sīr-dār (Ṭāleš), gūšvārak (in Šīrgāh, lit. “the little earring,” probably an allusion to the form of its showy pink dehiscent capsules, growing on long stalks; for pictorial details, see Ghahreman, loc. cit.), and al(-e) asbī (Katūl).
E. velutinus (C. A. Mey.) Fisch. et C. A. Mey. (= E. europaeus L. var. velutinus C. A. Mey.) is native to the Caucasus but is also found in many places in northern Iran, including Āstārā, Nūr, Kojūr, Kalārdašt, Gadūk (Māzandarān), Katūl, Morāva Tappa, and Čenārān pass and Gol(l)īdāḡ (both in Khorasan); it also grows in Turkmenistan; local names include gūšvārak (Nūr), sefīd-al (Kalārestāq), gūš-ḥalqe-ʿalaf (in Katūl, lit. “earring wort”), and sīā(h)-šen (Zīārat in Gorgān).
E. verrucosa Scop. is found in Arasbārān and Ḥasanbaglü (North Azerbaijan); it is also reported from the Caucasus and Transcaucasia.
Ṯābetī (loc. cit.) further mentions the following two exotic but widely cultivated species: 1. E. japonicus L. f., the Japanese spindle tree, commonly called šemšād or šemšād-e rasmī (lit., “standard šemšād”), is an evergreen native to Japan and China but was naturalized in Iran long ago as a decorative shrub planted especially for hedges and borders; it occurs in three varieties: E. japonicus var. argento-variegata Regel (ablaq-e safīd “variegated with white”), var. aureo-variegata Regel (ablaq-e zard “variegated with yellow”), and var. microphylla Hort., called semšād-e naʿnāʿī (mint-like šemšād) by gardeners, a dwarf variety with small dark green leaves, often planted as border evergreen for flower beds. 2. E. patens Rehd. (= E. sieboldiana Hort.), a climbing evergreen native to China. (For other species of Evonymus growing in some territories adjacent to Iran, see Rechinger, loc. cit.).
Some botanical features of the šemšād have been used by classical Persian poets in similes and metaphors connected with the stature and hair of their object of praise (mamdūḥ) or (often imaginary) sweetheart (maʿšūq). Considering that the šemšād typically has many branchy stems and a generally shaggy habit, the comparison of the sweetheart’s stature (supposedly erect, svelte, and well balanced) to it (in similes such as šemšād-tan “šemšād-bodied” and šemšād-bālā/-qad “having a šemšād-like stature”; see Dehḵodā, Loḡat-nāma, s.vv.) seems far-fetched (cf. the more artless modern colloquial Persian simile meṯl-e šāḵ-e šemšād “like a šemšād branch,” said of a vigorous spruce svelte person). The thick, curly dark hair of the beloved has been compared to the dense, dark green, shiny foliage of some varieties of šemšād (cf. e.g.; Manūčehrī, Dīvān, p. 109; “Behold the šemšād with such a fine head of hair”; p. 182: “the šemšād has assumed the color of the lady’s hair”; and Fakr-al-Dīn Gorgānī, Vīs o Rāmīn, p. 399: “When I remember thy unfaithfulness, I writhe like thy twin šemšād-colored/-looking locks”). Occasionally, the šemšād, like the violet (see banafša), has served to compare the nascent dark hair on the cheeks, e.g., Farroḵī, Dīvān, p. 293: “Hast thou seen a šemšād-covered tulip [= rosy face] with a hyacinth crown [= curly dark hair on the head]”; and Neẓāmī Ganjavī (quoted in Dehḵodā, loc. cit.): hanūz-aš gerd-e gol nārosta šemšād “the šemšād not yet grown around his rose [= rosy cheeks].” (For other literary quotations involving the šemšād, see Dehḵodā, loc. cit.).
A now obsolete variant of šemšād in New Persian, šemšār (cf. the Mid. Pers. and modern dialect forms above), seems to have acquired, by extension, the sense of “fresh, tender twigs of the šemšād, with extremely green and delicate leaves, so tender that they bend down and therefore used by poets to compare the hair of the ḵūbān (lovely ones) to them” (Borhān-e qāṭeʿ, ed. Moʿīn, II, p. 1294); a simultaneous use of šemšād, i.e., svelte stature, and šemšār, i.e., hanging curly hair, is found in a distich by Zaynabī (a contemporary of the Ghaznavids Maḥmūd and Masʿūd; quoted by Asadī, ed. Eqbāl, p. 125).
There are also references to the sweet smell of the šemšād in connection with a person’s perfumed hair, e.g., šemšād-e ʿanbarforūš “ambergris-selling šemšād” (Ferdowsī), šemšād-e būyanda “odorous šemšād” (Asadī), and šemšād-būy “having the scent of šemšād (Manūčehrī, see Dehḵodā, loc. cit.); in non-literary classical and modern sources the only mention of the fragrance of any kind of šemšād is made by Tonokābonī (p. 171) and his commentator, ʿAqīlī Ḵorāsānī (loc. cit.): “Its leaves are like those of the pomegranate and the myrtle, but smaller and greeneṛ . . . ; its blossoms are white and have a strong fragrance (ʿeṭrīya), and its seeds are black, resembling those of the myrtle and the pepper.” The poetical allusions to the šemšād fragrance, unconfirmed by actual evidence, have led many Persian lexicographers to think that the name šemšād was also applied to other aromatic plants, namely, the sweet marjoram (marzangūš), a hardy perennial herb, or the myrtle (Pers. mūrd, Ar. ās), an evergreen shrub with fragrant leaves. There is, indeed, a variety of boxtree bearing some resemblance to the myrtle (namely B. sempervirens var. myrtifolia), but, as pointed out above, the reference seems to be only to the form and color of the leaves and the seeds (cf. also Fīrūzābādī, I: baqs/baqsīs “a tree like the ās as to its leaves and grains,” and baqš “a tree called ḵᵛošsāy in Persian”; see also Lane, I/1, London, 1863, s.vv.). Probably first imagined by the author of the Bahār-e ʿAjam (compiled in 1152/1739-40; II, p. 175), the identification of the šemšād with the marzangūš when a darling’s hair is involved has been uncritically repeated by modern lexicographers such as Dehḵodā (s.v. šemšād-būy) and M. Moʿīn (Farhang-e fārsī, s.v. šemšād). There is no factual evidence for this identification, which may be due to poetical or lexical confusion (cf. šemšād in the Borhān-e qāṭeʿ: “an aromatic plant called marzangūš and, in Arabic, āḏān al-faʾr”).
Therapeutic virtues have been attributed to the boxtree only by a few “western” medical and pharmacological authors in the Islamic period (Ebn al-Bayṭār quotes nothing from the Greek masters Dioscorides and Galen, and, except for Bīrūnī, “eastern” authors, such as Rāzī, Ebn Sīnā, Mowaffaq Heravī, and Aḵawaynī Boḵārī, are silent about the boxtree). Ebn al-Bayṭār (pt. 1, p. 103) quotes the following virtues and uses for the baqs, which he says the Syrians call šemšār: “It is a tree with leaves resembling those of the ās . . . Its seeds are black like those of the ās and are astringent; if taken internally they constipate the belly and desiccate the moisture in the bowels” (Ebn Ḥassān, i.e., Ebn Joljol, but attributed verbatim to Ṣahārboḵt [b. Māsarjīs] by Bīrūnī, Ar. text, p. 415). “Boxwood sawdust, kneaded with henna and applied on the head, strengthens the hair, is useful against headache, and brings together disjoined cranial sutures (tafarroq al-šoʾūn); kneaded with egg white and fine flour and applied on a waṯī (a dislocated or injured member without bone fracture), it will be useful to [cure] this [injury]” (from Šarīf Edrīsī) Anṭākī (I, pp. 70-71) and, following him, Tonokābonī (loc. cit.), while expatiating on the preceding indications, have added mainly the following: The boxtree is hot and dry in the second degree. Its seeds desiccate all moistures (roṭūbāt), even the running saliva. The thickened decoction of its seeds with wine, if applied on the skin, removes the ḥomra/bād-e sorḵ (erysipelas), namla sāʿīa (staphylococcal pustules? eczema?), and saʿfa (psoriasis? ringworm?); mixed with honey and henna and applied on the skin they clear the āṯār (scars, blemishes). Combing the hair with combs made of boxwood improves the hair (only in Anṭākī). The topical application of a decoction of box leaves is a proven remedy for anal prolapse. Nowadays probably the only therapeutic use of the boxtree is as a folk medicine in Gīlān and Māzandarān against tapeworms; a dose is about a cupful of the bitter juice extracted from the pounded leaf buds or young leaves (Pāyanda, loc. cit.; however, he warns against an overdose, which would be fatal).
Dāʾūd Anṭākī, Taḏkerat ūli’l-albāb wa’l-jāmeʿ le’l-ʿajab al-ʿojāb, 2 vols., Cairo, 1308-09/1890-91.
Moḥammad-Ḥosayn ʿAqīlī Ḵorāsānī, Maḵzan al-adwīa, Calcutta, 1844.
Asadī Ṭūsī, Loḡat-e fors, ed. F. Mojtabāʾī and ʿA.-A. Ṣādeqī, Tehran, 1365 Š./1986.
Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī, Ketāb al-ṣaydana, ed. and tr. M. Said and R. Ehsan Elahie, Karachi, 1973.
Ebn al-Bayṭār, al-Jāmeʿ le mofradāt al-adwīa wa’l-aḡḏīa, 4 pts. in 2 vols., Būlāq, 1291/1874.
Faḵr-al-Dīn Asʿad Gorgānī, Vīs o Rāmīn, ed. M. A. Todua et al., Tehran, 1349 Š./1970.
Farroḵī Sīstānī, Dīvān, ed. M. Dabīrsīāqī, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1348 Š./1969.
Fīrūzābādī, al-Qāmūs al-moḥīṭ, alphabetically rearranged by Ṭāher Aḥmad Zāwī, I, 2nd ed., Cairo, 1970.
A. Ghahreman, Flore de l’Iran (Felūr-e Īrān), Tehran, III, 1361 Š./1982; VIII, 1365 Š./1987.
Manūčehrī Dāmḡānī, Dīvān, ed. M. Dabīrsīāqī, 4th ed., Tehran, 1356 Š./1977.
A. Parsa, Flore de l’Iran, Tehran, IV, 1328 Š./1949.
M. Pāyanda Langarūdī, Farhang-e Gīl o Deylam. Fārsī be gīlakī, Tehran, 1366 Š./1987.
K. H. Rechinger, “Buxaceae,” in Flora Iranica, ed. K. H. Rechinger, Vienna, no. 27, 1966.
Idem, “Celastraceae,” ibid., no. 64, 1969.
K. Sāʿī, Jangal-šenāsī I, Tehran, 1327 Š./1948.
H. Ṯābetī, Jangalhā, deraḵtān o deraḵṭčahā-ye Īrān, Tehran, 1355 Š./1976.
Lālā Tīk Čand (Bahār), Bahār-e ʿAjam, 2 vols. in one, Lucknow, 1334/1916.
Moḥammad-Moʾmen Ḥosaynī Tonokābonī (Ḥakīm Moʾmen), Toḥfa-ye Ḥakīm Moʾmen (Toḥfat al-moʾmenīn), Tehran, n.d. [1360 Š./1981?].
Originally Published: December 15, 1989
Last Updated: December 15, 1989
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Vol. IV, Fasc. 4, pp. 418-420