Box tree caterpillar plague in Clapham, London

It’s usually around this time of year, just as our good ship The Garden puts its rockets into nitro that problems start to crop up in the engines. Last year I spotted a beautiful moth in our garden and soon learnt that this beaut is a terror, Cydalima perspectalis, the box tree moth. Sometimes bad things come in good packages.

This quiet scout was the sign of something much worse to come. In our garden I’ve been working on a cloud pruned Buxus sempervirens bush for a few years – I knew the risks, box blight and box caterpillar but I hoped by only having one little plant it might go unnoticed or at least, receive only a little damage. But no.

With box caterpillar we’re not talking about the odd nibbled leaves, we’re talking utter devastation. Given how long it takes box to grow, it’s pointless me even trying to save this topiary. To do so would require weekly preemptive pesticide spraying – something that I personally think is a bad idea for the effects it has on all other insects, let alone the cost. Beyond all of that, one walk around Clapham tells you spraying one bush against box caterpillar would be like trying to stop a tidal wave with a bucket.

Everywhere you walk around Clapham every single hedge (one above) has the same patches of death by munching. This will be the second wave of this season’s population, and I suspect given our microclimate, the worst is yet to come later in summer. No box hedge in the area will survive (I’m guessing this is happening all across London?)

For gardeners, this means total annihilation of a plant used for hedges, box balls and topiary up and down the country. It’s interesting as an example of a lack of experimentation and adventure in gardening leading to us creating an enormous monoculture ripe for an insect or fungus to feast upon.

When we’re talking about replacements for box, I hope we learn from this painful lesson that we should be looking for multiple alternatives to use and not just one. Let’s not be here in ten years time talking about the yew tree caterpillar or Lonicera nitida blight…

At our open day I was asked by a neighbour what they can do, to their horror I replied “give up and look for alternatives”. Don’t be disheartened, change in gardens is always good – it’s an opportunity to toss out the topiary and experiment with a whole new look.

Have you been affected by box tree caterpillars?  Do you live in London too? I’d love to hear from you below in the comments…

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Jack Wallington

I'm an RHS qualified garden designer living in Clapham, London who loves growing plants and designing with them. Follow me on Twitter.

10 thoughts on “Box tree caterpillar plague in Clapham, London

  1. Yep in Clapham and all ours died and now think what we plant with.What alternatives do you suggest that don’t grow too high?

    1. Hi Charlie, there is quite a large range of different plants to use depending on the situation. For a lowish hedge I’ve used Yew, Euonymus, Lonicera nitida, Ilex crenata and others. It’s worth shopping around for exactly what you need as there are many cultivars of these plants allowing for different colours, growing in sun vs shade etc.

  2. We’re in Blackheath and I’ve just discovered we have it too, with a more than nibbled more like decimated topiary box ball. One down, will the other two survive?

    1. They’ll move onto the others really quickly if they are that close. You can get into a regime of spraying pesticide and fertilising. I don’t personally use pesticides so I would look to replace them myself. That said, I know some people who have had good success simply through fertilising regularly and using garlic spray to put the caterpillar off.

      1. Agree. We’ve removed the decimated plant, and hopefully all of the caterpillars with it. We’re now on caterpillar watch!

  3. I’ve just been for a walk through Islington today and every box hedge I saw in two hours was destroyed. Even a beautiful maze in a front garden in Canonbury! 🙁 This seems particularly bad this year?

    1. Hi Jemma, I think that’s to be expected. The last two years have seen most hedges wiped out so any still lingering on will hit hard this year unless a regime of spraying and fertilising happens which I don’t personally approve of. Not least because of the expense. Bette too just replace.

  4. We’re in Chelmsford – I can’t believe how quickly the caterpillars have completely destroyed our box edging. I have noticed several other hedges in the same state on our Road and will be passing on the word. Out of desperation I had to resort to chemicals to kill the caterpillars, too late for ours but hopefully will save others.

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