Butcher's Broom, Fragon piquant, Petit Houx,

As you walk through the French woods you may well see dense clumps of what seems like knee-high holly. In winter they stand prominently green in the leafless surroundings. Their sharp points penetrate the trousers. Here and there bright red berries adorn their deep green 'leaves'. The 'Little Holly' (Petit Houx) or Butcher's Broom is appropriately coloured for Christmas. The other name 'fragon' also means holly in the ancient gaulois language. Just as a passing smell can bring back memories, so whenever I see this plant it strongly evokes for me my schooldays. I studied Botany at a school within sight of Tower Bridge and plants like these do not grow there! I wrote of it in the exam answers, but for me it might as well have been as extinct as the Dodo!

In Britain, the Butcher's Broom (Ruscus aculeatus in Latin) is only found naturally in southern areas, but it exists commonly in much of France. It got its name, so we were told, because country butchers used bundles of it as a tool for cleaning down the wooden blocks on which the meat was chopped. Its sharp pointed 'leaves' were just right for scraping away the morsels of flesh. But as the textbook said the leaves are not leaves but hardened broad stems, botanically known as cladodes. These persistent tough green structures are a strong indication that the plant is adapted to grow in dry soils and also see through a hard winter. They carry tiny brown scales which are all that represent the true leaves. The flowers are carried on the middle of the cladodes. After the flowers come the bright red berries, which must also spring from where the tiny flowers were, that is to say the centre of the oddly hard stiff 'leaf'. The male and female flowers are carried on different plants, so not all plants will carry berries. At this time of year, winter, you will find plants with both flowers and fruits. The clumps of plants are extremely long lived and one may well suppose that some are many hundreds of years old.

This species is most closely related to the lilies! Yet it looks nothing like a lily. The internal structure of the tissues which conduct water and salts, and the structure of the flower indicate this relationship. It was a close relative of this plant (Ruscus hypoglossum, or the Alexandrian Laurel) with larger and softer cladodes which in ancient Greece and Rome was woven into wreaths for crowning distinguished people. That species only grows naturally in mediterranean areas.

The Latin Ruscus is related to the Italian brusco - 'sharp taste', which gives the French brusque! Lastly, I wonder which butchers used this plant, which did not exist over most of Britain?

Butcher's broom natural history index | home page