HOWTOGROW: BUTCHER’S BROOM
This British native thrives in shade and its evergreen leaves and scarlet berries brighten up the sombre winter scene
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
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’.
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.