Distylium buxifolium (Hance) Merr.

TSO logo


Kindly sponsored by
Lucy Garton


Owen Johnson (2024)

Recommended citation
Johnson, O. (2024), 'Distylium buxifolium' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online (treesandshrubsonline.org/articles/distylium/distylium-buxifolium/). Accessed 2024-06-19.

Common Names

  • Box-leaf Isu Tree


  • Distylium buxifolium var. rotundum H. T. Chang
  • Distylium chinense Hemsl. (non (Franch. ex Hemsl.) Diels)
  • Distylium lipoense Y. K. Li & X. M. Wang
  • Distylium strictum Hemsl.
  • Myrsine buxifolia Hance
  • Rapanea buxifolia (Hance) Mez


(in Casuarinaceae) Portion of branchlet between each whorl of leaves.
Bluish or greyish waxy substance on leaves or fruits.
Lance-shaped; broadest in middle tapering to point.
(syn.) (botanical) An alternative or former name for a taxon usually considered to be invalid (often given in brackets). Synonyms arise when a taxon has been described more than once (the prior name usually being the one accepted as correct) or if an article of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature has been contravened requiring the publishing of a new name. Developments in taxonomic thought may be reflected in an increasing list of synonyms as generic or specific concepts change over time.
(var.) Taxonomic rank (varietas) grouping variants of a species with relatively minor differentiation in a few characters but occurring as recognisable populations. Often loosely used for rare minor variants more usefully ranked as forms.


Owen Johnson (2024)

Recommended citation
Johnson, O. (2024), 'Distylium buxifolium' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online (treesandshrubsonline.org/articles/distylium/distylium-buxifolium/). Accessed 2024-06-19.

A compact shrub 1–2 m tall. Young twigs with stellate hairs which are soon shed; buds close-set (10–25 mm apart). Leaf oblong-lanceolate or rarely obovate with a narrowly cuneate base and a rounded or pointed mucronate tip, usually 20–50 × 10–18 mm, glabrous, entire or with 1–(2) teeth on either side towards the tip; leaf-stalk 1–3 mm long, bearing scarcely lobed, appressed scales. Fruit-capsule 7–9 mm wide; seeds 4–5 mm long. Flowering (China) April–May, fruiting June–August. (Zhang, Zhang & Endress 2003).

Distribution  China Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan, Sichuan, Zhejiang

Habitat Forests, by rivers and streams; 1000–1200 m asl.

USDA Hardiness Zone 7

RHS Hardiness Rating H5

Conservation status Not evaluated (NE)

Taxonomic note Distylium chinense Hemsl. is listed here as a synonym of D. buxifolium, following several authorities including Plants of the World Online (Royal Botanic Gardens Kew 2023). This should not be confused with Distylium chinense (Franch. ex Hemsl.) Diels which is an accepted species, but which is not known to be in cultivation and therefore does not receive a full article here.

Distylium buxifolium is one of the more widespread Distylium species in its native China, and one of the most diminutive, forming a dense low mound (Hinkley 2023). Its leaves are proportionately small – the species name means ‘with leaves like a Box (​​​Buxus)’ – and this helps to make the reddish flower clusters that wreathe the stems in spring a little more conspicuous than is true for most of its allies. It was described as long ago as 1861 (as a species of Myrsine) and was studied by some of the earliest western botanists working in China, including Augustine Henry and Ernest Wilson (Walker 1944).

In 2016, seed of Distylium buxifolium was collected from Wuhan Botanic Gaden in Hubei, as part of the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s International Plant Exploration Programme (SMH 16013); seedlings are flourishing at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum and at Juniper Level Botanic Garden, both in North Carolina (North American Hardiness Zone 7b or 8a), where they can bloom as early as January (Avent 2020; Hinckley 2023); material from SMH 16013 was also offered by 2023 by Dan Hinkley’s Windcliff Plants nursery, with partial shade and regular watering recommended. By 2023, D. buxifolium (from whatever source) was also advertised commercially in Europe, including the Netherlands, Germany, France (Pépinière AOBA 2023) and Italy. However, various other Distylium taxa are cultivated at Wuhan, and Zac Hill at Juniper Level Botanic Garden observes that the seedlings from SMH 16013 display a variety of features, including those of D. dunnianum which is a shrub or tree from Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou and south-eastern Yunnan with longer-stalked and narrowly lanceolate leaves (Z. Hill pers. comm.; Zhang, Zhang & Endress 2003).

The difficulties in differentiating Distylium species could mean that D. buxifolium may also have been in western gardens for much longer than this, incognito. Jan De Langhe has suggested that some of the plants grown as D. myricoides, but with rather oblong leaves usually less than 5 cm long and leaf-stalks less than 5 mm long, might be hybrids with D. buxifolium (De Langhe 2014), although these two species are not closely related (Dong et al. 2021). D. buxifolium is, meanwhile, very close to D. chinense, another shrubby species with a wider distribution extending further northwards in China; some authorities have merged these species (Walker 1944), while Henry Hance’s publication of the exisiting name D. chinense for D. buxifolium in 1909 will have been a further source of confusion (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2023). D. chinense differs very subtly in the lobed and spreading scales on its leaf-stalks and in its generally less oblong leaves which usually have two or three pairs of distant teeth towards the tip (Zhang, Zhang & Endress 2003). Seed of D. chinense has recently been offered (online) but careful study would be needed to confirm whether any cultivated plants – excluding those known to be from SMH 16013 – would fit better within that species.