Above, from left: Butcher’s broom growing in a pot indoors in Cuxa Cloister; detail of the stiff, sharp “leaves,” which are actually modified stems; detail from the tapestry The Hunters Enter the Woods showing Butcher’s broom.
An odd-looking little shrub, Butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus), which reaches a height between one and a half and two feet for us here at The Cloisters, was also known as knee-holly, because of its short stature and prickly nature. (Another old name is “pettygree” or “pettygrew.”) Usually included in the very large lily family, butcher’s broom is a botanical curiosity as well as a household and medicinal plant with a long history of use.
According to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Index of Garden Plants, R. aculeatus ranges from the Mediterranean and the Black Sea north to Great Britain. The sixteenth-century herbalist William Turner reported that knee-holly grew wild in the hedgerows of Kent, although it bore no fruit as it did in Italy. Turner’s younger contemporary and fellow observer John Gerard (1545–1611/12) discovered it growing on Hampstead Heath near London.
In Garden Shrubs and Their Histories (1964), Alice Coats remarks that butcher’s broom is “very tender” and is rarely cultivated north of Louisiana, although the RHS lists it as Zone 7. (Grieve considers it “very hardy” and remarks that it will spread into large clumps if planted under deciduous trees; hence it was often planted as an evergreen groundcover in shrubberies or woodland margins in England.) Here at The Cloisters, butcher’s broom is grown in pots for display, and removed to shelter before frost. It has survived being overwintered in the ground here in the past, but the “foliage” does suffer damage. The new shoots, a much paler green than the older ones, emerge in the spring. These have been eaten like asparagus (see Asparagaceae), to which butcher’s broom is botanically related; Tony Hunt lists “spargus” or “speragus” among the medieval English names for Ruscus. (According to most ancient and modern commentators, these shoots are somewhat tough and bitter. I haven’t yet tried them myself.)
The medicinal virtues of the plant derived from the De Materia Medica of Dioscorides: Ruscus aculeatus was identified with the Mursine agria described in Book IV, 146, and recommended as a diuretic and a breaker of stones in the bladder, as well as a treatment for headache. Either the leaves and berries drunk in wine or a decoction of the root provided the same benefits. According to the fifteenth-century Hortus Sanitatis, the juice was held in the mouth to cure sores, and was given for stomach pain and excess bile. It also stopped the spitting of blood and cleared sore eyes. The powdered root was used to cleanse wounds. The medieval reputation of the root as a diuretic was upheld by John Parkinson in the seventeenth century, who counted it—along with parsley, fennel, celery, and true asparagus—among the five “opening” or diuretic roots known to apothecaries.
(Several other species of Ruscus are included in the De Materia Medica, including R. hypophyllum or Chamaidaphne, Book IV, 132. Dioscorides recommends the leaves of this species, “beaten small and smeared on” for headache. It eased a griping stomach if drunk with wine, and, like R. aculeatus, was diuretic in action. The Ruscus shown in a manuscript of the herbal of Apuleius c. 1400 (see image) may represent either species.
A page from the mid-fourteenth-century manuscript herbal Secreta Salernitana (see image), now in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Florence, shows the medicinal Ruscus aculeatus in the upper left-hand corner of the folio; a woman to the right of the plant holds a broom made from the branches of the shrub. The name is said to derive from its use by butchers to scour their blocks and stalls. (The Scottish botanist John Claudius Loudon reported that little brushes of butcher’s broom were used to scrub kitchen utensils in nineteenth-century Brittany.) The plant was also used to deter mice from gnawing raw meat awaiting sale or consumption, since the prickly stems formed an impenetrable hedge around the flesh. The berried stems have been used as a garnish and as a Christmas green. (Although the berries ripen in September, they are carried on the stems all winter.) In the eighteenth century, young plants were dug up and sold to be potted up in sand as a winter decoration indoors.
Alexander, E. J., and Carol H. Woodward. The Flora of The Unicorn Tapestries. Second edition. New York: The New York Botanical Garden, 1947.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Coats, Alice M. Garden Shrubs and Their Histories. 1964. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992 (reprint with additional notes by Dr. John L. Creech).
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Grigson, Geoffrey. The Englishman’s Flora. 1955. Reprint: London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1987.
Gunther, Robert T., ed. The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides Translated by John Goodyer 1655. 1934. Reprint. New York: Hafner Publishing, 1968.
Hunt, Tony. Plant Names of Medieval England. Cambridge: Wolfeboro, NH: D.S. Brewer, 1989.