HOWTOGROW: BUTCHER’S BROOM

This Bri­tish na­tive thrives in shade and its ever­green leaves and scar­let ber­ries brighten up the som­bre win­ter scene

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Gardening -

Butcher’s broom, or Rus­cus ac­ulea­tus, is weird. Like as­para­gus, it be­longs to the lily fam­ily, al­though you would hardly guess that a small scratchy ever­green shrub had any­thing in com­mon with the lux­u­ri­ous face of a lily. An­other close re­la­tion is Danae race­mosa, the poet’s lau­rel, which is a glossier, larger and more sup­ple ver­sion of butcher’s broom with­out the spikes. Rus­cus is a Bri­tish na­tive but was widely dug up and in­tro­duced to or­na­men­tal shrub­beries as early as the 17th cen­tury, when all ever­greens were prized.

Where large colonies of it are found, it is of­ten an in­di­ca­tor of an his­toric plant­ing, es­pe­cially in 18th­cen­tury gar­dens. Butcher’s broom, as its name sug­gests, also had prac­ti­cal use. It was pop­u­lar for scrub­bing butch­ers’ blocks, clean­ing chim­neys, or re­pelling rats and mice. If my own plants were large enough to cut, I would stick a few branches in the com­post heap, where rats are cur­rently bur­row­ing.

For mod­ern gar­den­ers rus­cus has other ad­van­tages. It will sur­vive ne­glect in deep shade among the roots of trees, where in time it will make a good patch of spiny matt-green stems, never more than a cou­ple of feet high. What ap­pear to be leaves are, in fact, flat­tened stems called clado­des which last for about three years and then turn into brown skele­tons that can be re­moved. (New green stems will have grown to re­place th­ese.) Rus­cus is very slow-grow­ing and its flow­ers are minute, but the na­tive fe­male form has scar­let ber­ries so large that they look like Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions; an­other name for the shrub is knee holly. In the ab­sence of the plant’s own ber­ries, it was ap­par­ently once grown in pots with a few scar­let ber­ries of the na­tive stink­ing iris stuck around it for dec­o­ra­tion.

Most of this in­for­ma­tion may seem more curious than tempt­ing, but re­cently the rea­sons for giv­ing rus­cus a try have be­come much more com­pelling. At Great Dix­ter I of­ten ad­mired a hand­some spec­i­men Christo­pher Lloyd grew that was cov­ered in ber­ries, only to be told that it was the rare her­maph­ro­dite form. The im­pli­ca­tion was that lesser gar­den­ers would never find it and would have to rely on buy­ing quan­ti­ties of plants in the hope of a chance en­counter be­tween male and fe­male plants. With­out ber­ries, butcher’s broom is a bit dull, but with ber­ries it is a spec­tac­u­lar af­fair. But the gen­eral pub­lic is at last in luck. En­ter­pris­ing nurs­ery­men do now of­fer her­maph­ro­dite forms of rus­cus and, al­though they may still be scarce, they can be found. Listed as ‘her­maph­ro­dite form’ or ‘Wheel­ers Variety’, they will grow slowly to less than 1m (3ft) and spread oblig­ingly in width. There is an­other clone on of­fer, ‘John Red­mond’, that can also be re­lied on for ber­ries. It will be slightly shorter than the oth­ers. Mary Keen

Good com­pan­ions

A De­cem­ber patch of ever­greens and scar­let ber­ries is a cheer­ing place in the dead of win­ter. One Danae race­mosa, cho­sen for height and gloss might rise from a colony of butcher’s broom. Or sev­eral if there was room. Ferns that keep their leaves could share the same patch. ‘Be­vis’ would be my first choice, with per­haps a few snow­drops on the edge where the ground was more fer­tile, be­cause rus­cus is a plant that will sur­vive the worst con­di­tions in the gar­den. Dense rooty shade is not easy to fur­nish and in sum­mer the Christ­mas cor­ner will sit qui­etly wait­ing for its mo­ment to come round again.

Rus­cus with ber­ries is an ob­vi­ous can­di­date for pots that can be stood near the door at this time of year, but it is a prickly thing so is per­haps not some­thing to be placed near where small chil­dren like to play. Pan-Global Plants in Glouces­ter­shire (01452 741641; www.pan­glob­alplants.com), have seedlings of ‘Wheel­ers Variety’, which come true, and clonal ‘John Red­mond’. Hardy Bam­boo from Nor­folk (01953 888212, www.hardy­bam­boo.com), stock Rus­cus ac­ulea­tus ‘Her­maph­ro­dite Form’.

Reader of­fer

Grow­ing tips

Al­though rus­cus will ex­ist in the grimmest of sur­round­ings and last there for hun­dreds of years, if you want to speed up the grow­ing (which is ad­mit­tedly slow) a good start with some well-rot­ted or­ganic mat­ter will be a help and a light diet of gen­eral fer­tiliser would not be a mis­take. The danae and ferns would also ap­pre­ci­ate some en­cour­age­ment.

Where to buy

Gar­den­ing read­ers can buy Butcher’s Broom ( Rus­cus ac­ulea­tus) with this spe­cial of­fer. One plant sup­plied as a bare root costs £17.95 in­clud­ing p&p, or buy two for £30.90. Call 0870 950 5926, quot­ing ref TL441, or send cheques made payable to Tele­graph Gar­den to Tele­graph Broom Of­fer, Rook­ery Farm, Joys Bank, Hol­beach St Johns, Spald­ing, PE12 8SG. De­liv­ery within 28 days.

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