Holly is not the only plant which bears bright scarlet berries in the frosty weeks leading up to Yuletide. Another prickly character, the Butcher’s Broom, can still be seen sporting these bright fruits in Whitehill Wood this week.
Butcher’s Broom is a strange name, for a strange plant: it is a small, low growing shrub which is related to the lily, yet it offers no apparent resemblance to that flower whatsoever. Between January and April it bears tiny greenish white flowers which, rather than growing on stalks, appear to grow in the centre of the leaves. It is an evergreen, which usually means its leaves stay green through the winter, but what seem to be leaves on the Butcher’s Broom are not really leaves at all, they are flattened stems called clododes, hence the reason the flowers grow where they do. These cladodes are shaped like spear points and are extremely prickly. The real leaves are less obvious.
In late autumn through to Christmas, Butcher’s Broom exhibits its beautiful scarlet berries, which are bigger than those of the holly, often ovaloid, but sufficiently similar for it to be sometimes called Knee Holly. Other common names for the plant include Pettigree and Sweet Broom. Although widespread across southern Britain, Butcher’s Broom is not a particularly common sight, but it is an Ancient Woodland Indicator, meaning that if you see it in the wild you may be standing in some very long established woods; as is the case in Whitehill Wood. It generally favours shady areas beneath canopy trees.
In olden times the prickliness of the plant made it an ideal guard to prevent meat hanging in butchers’ shops from being eaten by mice, and also for making scratchy, abrasive brooms. John Parkinson, a botanist and apothecary to James I in the early 1600s wrote about butchers using it thus, “…for that a bundle of the stalkes tied together serveth them to cleanse their stalls and from thence have we our English name of Butcher’s broom.” The plant has also been cultivated across Europe for its numerous medical and cosmetic properties since the days of Ancient Greece.
We wish all readers of BridgeNature.org a happy festive season.