Are you looking for an interesting, compact evergreen for a shady area? Ruscus species like the butcher’s-broom are great, low-maintenance evergreens for areas where other plants may struggle to grow.
Read on to learn more about growing and caring for these unusual plants.
What Is A Ruscus Plant?
Ruscus plants are part of the Asparagaceae family. These plants are native to the northwestern parts of Africa, Europe, and Western Asia. These plants are shrub-like but lack woody growth and can be referred to as evergreen perennials.
Two Ruscus species are popular garden plants, namely the Butcher’s-broom (R. aculeatus) and the spineless butcher’s-broom (R. hypoglossum), which is also known as the mouse thorn or horse tongue lily.
Interestingly, what appears to be leaves on these plants are, in fact, phylloclades (also known as cladodes). These structures are modified stems that do the work of leaves, performing the function of photosynthesis. These plants do also have tiny leaves though.
The butcher’s-broom grows to about 3 ft (0.9 m) in height and 3 ft (0.9 m) across, while the mouse thorn is the smaller plant reaching about 18 inches (46 cm) in height.
Butcher’s broom is native to Southern Europe, southwestern Asia, and northwestern Africa. The mouse thorn has a smaller distribution and originates from Central Europe, south to Northern Turkey.
- ‘Elizabeth Lawrence’ is a dwarf variety of the butcher’s-broom that grows to about 2ft (0.6 m) tall and 2ft (0.6 m) wide. This is an upright form that is able to produce a large number of fruits without fertilization from other plants. These bright fruits provide showy winter color in the garden.
- ‘Wheelers Variety’ is another upright form of Ruscus aculeatus that produces large red berries. This form grows larger, reaching 4ft (1.2 m) in height.
The butcher’s-broom flowers in spring (April to May) and produces tiny greenish-white flowers that are 1/16 inch (1.5 mm) in size.
On female plants, these flowers mature into glossy red berries. Interestingly, the flowers and fruits of Ruscus plants are borne in the middle of the upper cladode surfaces.
Ruscus plants are usually dioecious, which means that the species have separate male and female plants. R. aculeatus may occasionally be self-fertile, however, and some varieties will produce plenty of berries without fertilization from another plant.
How To Grow A Ruscus Plant
Ruscus plants can be grown from seed, cuttings, or by division. Although these plants grow slowly from seed, they can be sown in the fall.
You can also grow these plants from cuttings. Take single-bud rhizome cuttings and plant these out in late winter for best results. Take care not to expose these cuttings to frost if possible.
Probably the easiest and most effective way to grow small numbers of new plants is by means of division. Divide plants at the roots in the non-growing season, preferably in late spring. (1)
Since Ruscus plants are (usually) dioecious, it’s best to grow both male and female plants together if you’d like your plants to produce a good crop of showy red berries. A ratio of one male plant to about 6 female plants is generally recommended.
Ruscus plants can be grown in a wide variety of well-drained soils. Only saturated soils are not tolerated. These plants have only moderate water requirements and can withstand dry conditions, but light watering will not harm them.
Dappled shade seems to be the ideal light concentration for growing Ruscus plants, although partial shade to full shade will be tolerated.
These plants grow best in USDA hardiness zones 7 to 9.
Care and Maintenance
Ruscus plants are pretty hardy in the garden. They can handle heat, drought, and salt.
These plants require minimal maintenance. You can keep ruscus plants looking neat and tidy by cutting dead shoots back to the ground in spring. (2)
These plants are naturally pest and disease resistant.
Ruscus plants are best grown as low hedges or along shady borders and foundations. These are interesting and unusual plants that will do well in dry, shady areas of the yard where other plants may struggle to survive.
The mouse thorn, being a small, spreading species is ideal as a groundcover for these kinds of shady parts of the garden.
These plants take their name from the traditional practice of using branches to sweep and clean. They were used quite literally as butcher’s brooms.
The ruscus plant also has an ancient history of medicinal uses where it was used in the treatment of kidney stones, and as a laxative and diuretic.
Birds enjoy these berries and disperse the seeds widely. This plant is said to be deer resistant.
Ruscus may not make a great specimen plant or dazzle anyone with showy blossoms, but this is certainly an interesting and unusual plant for shady areas in the garden. Consider growing this plant as a hardy evergreen groundcover, hedge, or border plant.
*image by SaraTM/depositphotos
(1) Toogood, A. Plant Propagation: The Fully Illustrated Plant-By-Plant Manual Of Practical Techniques. American Hortical Society
(2) Brickell, C. Encyclopedia of Plants & Flowers. American Horticultural Society