Flowering Scilly

Butcher’s Broom – Ruscus Aculeatus
"Christmas comes but once a year, and when it comes it brings good cheer."

The winter months on Scilly are usually mild and consequently a number of flowers can be found in bloom. Last year I walked off the effects of Christmas lunch and noted Danish Scurvy Grass, Sweet Alyssums, Bermuda Buttercups, Sweet Violets and Prickly Ox-tongues. The odd narcissus was opening too.

In these islands the season for marketing Narcissi and Daffodils, cultivated here in open fields and not under glass, is from the end of October through to Easter. Some flowers escape and others, rejected and dumped by farmers, become wild and by February carpet field edges, hedge bottoms and waste ground with a blaze of colour. These Amaryllidaceae, now classified under Liliaceae, are joined by others of this large family. One of the earliest is the Snowflake (Leucojum aestivum), often mistaken for a tall Snowdrop, dainty Spring Star flowers (Ipheion or Tristagma uniflorum) stud the grass between the boats on Porthloo, and everywhere are found the bell-like Alliums, the Three-angled Leeks.

There is another of the Liliaceae family, uncommon, but growing in a few places on Scilly. This is the Butcher’s Broom (Ruscus aculeatus). The berries of Butcher’s Broom, like small, bright scarlet peas ripen in autumn. Some cling to the plant in winter. Because of this, in an era before Christmas poultry was common on the table, it was used, according to early writers for "Decorating the sirloins of Christmas beef," as well as being included as another evergreen in the more usual decorations of churches and houses.

Once into the New Year I noticed the first buds on the new shoots, almost ready to open on the Broom.

Woodville’s Medical Botany of 1792 accurately describes the plant as "Having a root which is somewhat thick and knotty, externally brown and internally white and furnished with long fibres." From this rootstock stems grow from numerous small eyes. These stems are whitish when young, but rapidly harden to become green, tough, furrowed and woody. They branch freely to form a considerable bush which can rise to well over a metre in height. The true leaves are only microscopic scales of a brown, papery texture. From the axils grow the odd features which are usually mistaken for true leaves, which they are not. They are in fact cladodes, specially adapted lateral stems which have been flattened and enlarged to form an oval leaf-shape, having parallel veins and each with a very sharp pointed extremity. Vergil aptly described it as ‘Horridor Rusco’ (spiny ruscus). The short stems, arranged alternately, that carry these cladodes, are twisted to ensure that all face the same way on each main stalk.

The flowers of early spring are equally unusual. They arise from tiny bracts and appear to grow in the middle of the cladodes, sitting on the central spine. In colour these are an inconspicuous greenish-white. Each has six lobes, three narrower than the others. These form a ‘perianth’ since petals and sepals are indistinguishable from each other. The general negative appearance is relieved by the tube of stamens of a dark-red purple, which forms a central spot of striking contrast to the pallid background.

The specific part of the botanical name, aculeatus, refers to the sharp point. The generic name of ruscus was one called by old herbalists ‘bruscus’. This derived from the Anglo Saxon for Holly or Box, because of its similar shape and spiny appearance. From this it is easy to recognise alternative local names of Knee Holly, Knee Hulver and Box Holly, plus the less obvious names of Petygrew and Pettigree. The usual name of Butcher’s Broom suggests the explanation given by William Coles in 1657. He wrote that bunches of it made by butchers "make cleane theyre stalls and defend theyre meate from the flyes there wyth." Bunches were also used "To preserve hanged meat from being eaten by mice!" presumably the prickles prevented the mice from climbing to it.

There appears to be little culinary use of this plant, although there is reference to the very young shoots being used as "An efficient substitute for asparagus." Another reference stated "Berries are sweet and not disagreeable to the taste." To this was added the cryptic footnote "Though we have not tested it!"

It was used medicinally. Culpeper enters his usual flight of fancy, describing it as being the "Plant of Mars", but continues with "A decoction of the roots will open obstructions, provoke urine, expel gravels, assist with women’s causes" as well as helping with "jaundice and headaches."

It is interesting to note that modern herbalists still use the dried roots for just the same complaints. None the less I never recommend anyone doctoring themselves with that which I have not tried myself!

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