[Footnote: Prize essay written for the International Forestry Exhibition, Edinburgh.]
By JOHN R. JACKSON. A.L.S., Curator of the Museums, Royal Gardens, Ken.
The importance of the discovery of a hard, compact, and even grained wood, having all the characteristics of boxwood, and for which it would form an efficient substitute, cannot be overestimated; and if such a discovery should be one of the results of the present Forestry Exhibition, one of its aims will have been fulfilled.
For several years past the gradual diminution in the supplies of boxwood, and the deterioration in its quality, have occupied the attention of hardwood merchants, of engravers, and of scientific men.
Of merchants, because of the difficulties in obtaining supplies to meet the ever increasing demand; of engravers, because of the higher prices asked for the wood, and the difficulty of securing wood of good size and firm texture, so that the artistic excellence of the engraving might be maintained; and of the man of science, who was specially interested in the preservation of the indigenous boxwood forests, and in the utilization of other woods, natives, it might be, of far distant countries, whose adaptation would open not only a new source of revenue, but would also be the means of relieving the strain upon existing boxwood forests.
While by far the most important use of boxwood is for engraving purposes, it must be borne in mind that the wood is also applied to numerous other uses, such, for instance, as weaving shuttles, for mathematical instruments, turnery purposes, carving, and for various ornamental articles, as well as for inlaying in cabinet work. The question, therefore, of finding suitable substitutes for boxwood divides itself into two branches, first, directly for engraving purposes, and, secondly, to supply its place for the other uses to which it is now put. This, to a certain extent, might set free some of the boxwood so used, and leave it available for the higher purposes of art. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that much of the wood used for general purposes is unsuited for engraving, and can only therefore be used by the turner or cabinet maker. Nevertheless, the application of woods other than box for purposes for which that wood is now used would tend to lessen the demand for box, and thus might have an effect in lowering the price.
So far back as 1875 a real uneasiness began to be felt as to the future supplies of box. In the Gardeners' Chronicle for September 25, of that year, page 398, it is said that the boxwood forests of Mingrelia in the Caucasian range were almost exhausted. Old forests, long abandoned, were even then explored in search of trees that might have escaped the notice of former proprietors, and wood that was rejected by them was, in 1875, eagerly purchased at high prices for England. The export of wood was at that time prohibited from Abhasia and all the government forests in the Caucasus. A report, dated at about the same period from Trebizond, points out that the Porte had prohibited the cutting of boxwood in the crown forests. (Gardeners' Chronicle, Aug. 19, 1876, p. 239.) Later on, the British Consul at Tiflis says: "Bona fide Caucasian boxwood may be said to be commercially non-existent, almost every marketable tree having been exported." (Gardeners' Chronicle, Dec. 6, 1879, p. 726.)
The characters of boxwood are so marked and so distinct from those of most other woods that some extracts from a report of Messrs. J. Gardner & Sons, of London and Liverpool, addressed to the Inspector-General of Forests in India, bearing on this subject, will not be without value; indeed, its more general circulation than its reprint in Mr. J.S. Gamble's "Manual of Indian Timbers" will, it is hoped, be the means of directing attention to this very important matter, and by pointing out the characters that make boxwood so valuable, may be the means of directing observation to the detection of similar characters in other woods. Messrs. Gardner say:
"The most suitable texture of wood will be found growing upon the sides of mountains. If grown in the plains the growth is usually too quick, and consequently the grain is too coarse, the wood of best texture being of slow growth, and very fine in the grain.
"It should be cut down in the winter, and, if possible, stored at once in airy wooden sheds well protected from sun and rain, and not to have too much air through the sides of the sheds, more especially for the wood under four inches diameter.
"The boxwood also must not be piled upon the ground, but be well skidded under, so as to be kept quite free from the effects of any damp from the soil.
"After the trees are cut down, the longer they are exposed the more danger is there afterward of the wood splitting more than is absolutely necessary during the necessary seasoning before shipment to this country.
"If shipped green, there is great danger of the wood sweating and becoming mildewed during transit, which causes the wood afterward to dry light and of a defective color, and in fact rendering it of little value for commercial purposes.
"There is no occasion to strip the bark off or to put cowdung or anything else upon the ends of the pieces to prevent their splitting.
"Boxwood is the nearest approach to ivory of any wood known, and will, therefore, probably gradually increase in value, as it, as well as ivory, becomes scarcer. It is now used very considerably in manufacturing concerns, but on account of its gradual advance in price during the past few years, cheaper woods are in some instances being substituted.
"Small wood under four inches is used principally by flax spinners for rollers, and by turners for various purposes, rollers for rink skates, etc., etc., and if free from splits, is of equal value with the larger wood. It is imported here as small as one a half inches in diameter, but the most useful sizes are from 2½ to 3½ inches, and would therefore, we suppose, be from fifteen to thirty or forty years in growing, while larger wood would require fifty years and upward at least, perhaps we ought to say one hundred years and upward. It is used principally for shuttles, for weaving silk, linen, and cotton, and also for rule making and wood engraving. Punch, The Illustrated London News, The Graphic, and all the first class pictorial papers use large quantities of boxwood."