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Plants from the Ground Up

Ruscus aculeatus – The Unique Butcher’s Broom

I have a great interest in plants that are either useful or unusual, Ruscus aculeatus is both! This unusual evergreen from Europe and the Mediterranean is a wonderful shrub for shaded spots. It is an uncommon edible and also a useful medicinal plant. A smallish woodland shrub growing to just 3 feet high. It is made of strange flattened shoots which are really modified stems known as cladodes. These shoots look as if they are made up of small green spine-tipped leaves. Some say the common name of Butcher’s Broom comes from the sharp foliage reminding one of sharp butcher’s knives. While it could refer to the practice of scrubbing your butcher’s block with the spiny stalks. Ruscus aculeatus has many common names, ‘The Butcher’ in France, ‘Hare’s Apple’ in Greece and my personal favorite ‘Mouse Stinger’ in Italy.

Ruscus aculeatus - Cladodes

Ruscus aculeatus – Cladodes

Perhaps one of the most easy-going shrubs you could plant. Butcher’s Broom can tolerate almost any type of soil, from dry sandy soils to heavy soils (as long as it they are not too wet). They can thrive in very nutritionally poor soils that are either acidic or alkaline. Dappled shade is their preferred sunlight, but they can grow in deep shade as well. Ruscus aculeatus spreads by rhizomes creating three foot clumps. In spring tiny green six-tepaled star-shaped flowers appear on the side of the cladodes. You have to look for them, but they are exquisite little gems which are pollinated by insects. 

Ruscus aculeatus - Flower

Ruscus aculeatus – Flower

These plants are dioecious meaning they are either male or female. The female plants (if pollinated) have beautiful bright-red glossy fruits that ripen in late summer and persist into winter.

Ruscus aculeatus - Fruit

Ruscus aculeatus – Fruit

You may not have guessed that this plant would be in the same family as lilies and asparagus! Young shoots can be steamed and eaten like asparagus, but it is too bitter for most modern palates. The use of Ruscus aculeatus medicinally goes back to the ancient Greeks. The plant contains many steroidal saponins which have a potent effect on the circulatory system. Contemporary herbal practitioners use Ruscus acleatus as a circulatory tonic and natural treatment for varicose veins.

Butcher’s broom makes an excellent low hedge, especially where one does not want traffic. Since it is such a low maintenance shrub you can plant it in areas of the garden that are not going to receive as much care. Ruscus aculeatus is grown from either seed or division and is winter hardy to USDA zone 7.

For more photos and information, see Ruscus acleatus at the Forestfarm Store.

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