Boxwood Blight: Lexington’s Iconic Shrubs Face Devastating Toll. Try These Native Plants Instead

Unprecedented Winter Freeze and Rampant Boxwood Blight Leave Lexington Gardens in Mourning

Lexington, Ky. – In a heartbreaking turn of events, Lexington’s beloved boxwood shrubs, known for their timeless elegance and lush greenery, have fallen victim to a deadly combination of a severe winter freeze and the relentless onslaught of boxwood blight. The city’s gardens and landscapes now bear witness to a somber scene of lifeless boxwoods that once graced the streets and residences of this vibrant community.

December Deep Freeze: A Chilling Prelude

Lexington residents will not soon forget the biting cold that swept through the region last December, bringing sub-zero temperatures and an icy grip that seemed unyielding. In a dramatic shift, the mercury plummeted rapidly, subjecting the local flora to conditions it was ill-prepared to endure. Among the hardest-hit victims of this winter onslaught were the cherished boxwood shrubs that had long adorned the city’s gardens, parks, and private residences.

Experts have noted that boxwoods, known for their evergreen foliage and ability to withstand various weather conditions, were no match for the unprecedented and sustained freezing temperatures. The rapid drop in temperature caught the plants off-guard, leaving them vulnerable to frost damage, desiccation, and ultimately death. Many of Lexington’s residents now face the disheartening sight of once-vibrant boxwoods turned brown, brittle, and lifeless.

Boxwood Blight: A Menacing Culprit

While the winter freeze dealt a significant blow to the boxwoods, it was not the sole perpetrator in this tragic tale. Lexington’s boxwood population had already been grappling with the relentless spread of boxwood blight, a fungal disease that had been slowly infiltrating the area for some time. Boxwood blight, caused by the pathogen Calonectria pseudonaviculata, attacks the leaves and stems of boxwood shrubs, causing defoliation, dieback, and ultimately death.

The disease, known for its devastating effects on boxwoods, thrives in moist environments and is spread through various means, including infected plant material, contaminated tools, and even wind-driven rain. Experts suggest that the combination of the deep freeze weakening the plants’ natural defenses and the presence of boxwood blight created a perfect storm, leading to the catastrophic loss of boxwoods throughout the region.

Community in Mourning, Looking for Solutions

The loss of Lexington’s iconic boxwoods has left residents and horticultural enthusiasts in a state of mourning. These elegant shrubs have long been cherished for their ability to add beauty and structure to landscapes, acting as a symbol of the city’s timeless charm. Their brown remains that now dot the city’s gardens serve as poignant reminders of the devastating impact that nature, combined with disease, can inflict upon even the hardiest of plants.

Embracing Native Plants: A Pathway to Resilient Landscapes

As Lexington mourns the loss of its cherished boxwoods, experts and gardening enthusiasts are advocating for the increased use of native plants in landscaping and gardening projects. Native plants, which naturally occur in a particular region, have adapted to the local climate, soil conditions, and pests over centuries, making them inherently more resilient and better suited to thrive in their environment. By incorporating native plants into our landscapes, we can create biodiverse ecosystems that offer numerous benefits.

One such benefit is the promotion of local wildlife. Native plants provide essential food and shelter for birds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, thereby supporting healthy ecosystems. These plants have co-evolved with native wildlife, forming intricate relationships that are crucial for the balance and sustainability of the local environment.

In the case of boxwoods, while they are not native to Kentucky, they can be traced back to various regions across Europe, Asia, and Africa. However, it is worth noting that Kentucky boasts a rich array of native plants that can serve as excellent alternatives to boxwoods, both in terms of aesthetics and functionality.

Here are a few native plant options from the Kentucky Native Plants Project that can offer beauty and resilience to Lexington’s landscapes. You can find a list of local native plant nurseries here.


Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a vital prairie grass and a beautiful landscaping plant. A patch of Switchgrass creates valuable habitat, providing food, shelter, and nesting material for birds and other wildlife. Its deep roots also help in soil stabilization.

Butterfly Milkweed

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is a popular variety of milkweed and a must-have in any butterfly garden due to its long-lasting, bright orange flowers attracting pollinators. Additionally, it serves as a larval host plant for monarch butterflies, whose populations are rapidly declining.

Cinnamon Fern

Cinnamon Fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) is an excellent choice for landscaping due to its stunning beauty. It’s known for its cinnamon-brown colored spore-bearing structures surrounded by lush green fronds. In addition, as a perennial plant, it reliably regrows every year without replanting, making it a low-maintenance addition to shade gardens.

Wild Hydrangea

Wild Hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) is a popular shrub sought out for its clusters of white flowers that bloom in the summer. Because this plant flowers on the current season’s growth, most gardeners cut the stems to the ground in the early spring, allowing new shoots to emerge from the base and bloom that summer.

Unfortunately, cultivation has given this species more showy but sterile flowers versus its naturally smaller, fertile ones. If you want to benefit pollinators the most, buy plants grown from seeds collected from wild populations.

New Jersey Tea

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a small, well-behaved bush with desirable glossy leaves. It makes it a perfect addition to any landscape when not in bloom. However, when it does bloom in the summer, it pops with clusters of scented white flowers, attracting numerous pollinators.

Wild Bergamot

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), or Bee Balm, is a well-known and highly adaptable plant for your landscape. Its fragrant lavender flowers add color to the garden and attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, making it an excellent choice for pollinator gardens.

Purple Coneflower

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a favorite for those new to native plants. It boasts beautiful pink-purple blooms and is a favorite nectar source for hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. In addition, its seed heads attract finches and other birds in the late summer.

As Lexington seeks to recover from the devastating loss of its beloved boxwoods, the integration of native plants into our landscapes emerges as a beacon of hope and resilience. These plants, perfectly adapted to the local environment, offer a myriad of benefits that extend beyond their aesthetic appeal.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) in bloom. (Kentucky Native Plant Project)

Top photo: Dead boxwoods in a Lexington neighborhood on May 19, 2023. (Photo by David O’Neill)