The ‘leaves’ on Butcher’s-broom (Ruscus aculeatus) are not what they seem. The true leaves of the plant are reduced to papery scales. The flat green ‘leaf-like’ appendages are in fact flattened stems (cladodes). This is much more apparent in January when the flowers appear in the middle of the cladodes; flowers do not grow from the middle of leaves.
The flowers, present from January to April, are very inconspicuous being small and green. These are followed by the readily visible fruits which are bright red and often as wide as the cladode on which they are held. The whole plant is easy to spot in the winter as it is evergreen and stands out against a backdrop of largely deciduous plants. I have seen clumps growing along the path from Studland to Old Harry Rocks.
Butcher’s-broom is found throughout Britain in dry woods. It can be found along paths in the shade of trees where it may be a fragment of woodland from previous times or a garden escape. It is one of the plants know as Ancient Woodland Indicators. The presence of high numbers of Ancient Woodland Indicators suggest that woodland is ancient. Ancient woodland is known to have high biodiversity and as well as having significant conservation value it is the kind of habitat in which a walk is rewarded with a great variety of wildlife sightings.
Butcher’s-broom gained its common name from its use, tied in bundles, to clean butcher’s chopping blocks where the stiffness of the stems and leaves would clean the surface. While no longer used in this way it has more contemporary uses. Both medicinally and cosmetically Butcher’s-broom root extract is used for its effects on circulation. Its utility as a medicinal has led to over collection in some areas, such as Turkey and Hungary. CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) has now given the plant greater protection.