Thursday, 29 November 2012

Butcher's Broom

A garden frontage in New Terrace, Byfield, boasts a dozen or so plants of Butcher's Broom, Ruscus aculeatus. "Boasts" is hardly an appropriate verb since they are rather scruffy little shrubs of limited garden merit.

Scruffy they may be, but this does not mean that they lack interest, for in fact they are very curious plants indeed. Despite their appearance they have no leaves; instead the work normally done by leaves, i.e. photosynthesis, is done by flattened stems called cladodes.
The plant is highly variable and the second  picture shows a form commonly used by florists (I found this piece on a pavement in Banbury, where it had clearly been dropped). Here the underside of the "leaves" show scars where the flower buds grew, yet flowers don't grow from the middle of leaves! Occasionally, if the flower has been pollinated, the cladode will bear a scarlet berry.
 Butcher's Broom is quite frequent in south east England but is not native to Northants. I  remember it well from when I served with the RAF in Gibraltar, for it was very common on "The Rock". In mediaeval times bunches of it were used to sweep the blood and gore from the floors of butchers' shops and its Latin name of Ruscus is simply the name used by the Romans for a butcher's broom.

According to my copy of Potter's Cyclopaedia a decoction of this plant "will be found of use in...female obstructions". Hmmm.

The Butcher's Broom is closely related to asparagus - another plant to bear cladodes instead of leaves.

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