Interesting name, unusual plant – watch out for the small green flowers in late winter and the large red berry fruits between October and May. Kennack Sands is a good place to find this plant.
Photo: Steve Townsend

Scientific name: Ruscus aculeatus

Other common names: Knee-holly, Sweet Broom, Shepherd’s Myrtle, Prickly Box, Pettigree, Box Holly

Butcher’s-broom, a member of the Lily family (Liliaceae) and native to Britain, is an interesting plant. For a start, the spiny ‘leaves’ are not leaves at all: they are flattened portions of stem (cladodes) that have taken on the function of leaves. Its real leaves have been reduced to small scale-like structures on the many-branching stems. The pale-green flowers and bright, large scarlet fruits are borne singly in the centre of the cladodes, from January to April and October to May, respectively (on the Lizard it can flower earlier than this). 

Its native range in Britain is the south of England, Scilly, south Wales and East Anglia: find it elsewhere and it is fairly likely that it has become established as a garden escape (it is widely used in gardens as an evergreen, shade-tolerant plant, though, as it is a dioecious plant, gardeners need to make sure they have both ‘male’ and ‘female’ plants – or a cultivated hermaphrodite form – if they want to enjoy the winter colour of its berries). Usually a plant of woodland and hedgerows, often seen growing round the base of trees, it is also found on rocky ground on the coastline. Birds eat the fruit and disperse the seeds, but Butcher’s-broom hedges its bets and also spreads using rhizomes.

Its common name derives from the traditional use of the mature spiny branches by butchers to clean and scour their chopping blocks. There is also reference to butchers using the branches to build mini indoor hedges around meat to protect it from mice (Mabey, 1997).

Did you know…?

…Butcher’s-broom is sometimes used in herbal medicine to treat diseases of the blood circulation, such as haemorrhoids or varicose veins: it contains substances that cause the blood vessels to contract.

…The roasted seeds can be used as a substitute for coffee. I haven’t tried it, so don’t know whether it can be recommended!

More information and references:

Mabey, R., 1997. Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus, London.

Rose, F. and O’Reilly, C., 2006. The Wild Flower Key, 2nd edition. Frederick Warne, London.

Stace, C., 2010. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Published: November 2013
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Steve Townsend