Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

QUERY: Uses of butcher’s broom

Posted on by royvickery |

ROTHE 061Colin Jacobs is interested in historical uses of butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus). Was it really ever used by butchers to scour their chopping blocks?

1. The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, Local Biodiversity Plan 2007 to 2011, Draft for consultation, p.51:
‘Carmelite Monastery [Notting Hill] … The site includes habitats rare in Kensington and Chelsea, particularly allotments and an orchard … The presence of butcher’s broom (Ruscus aculeatus) provides a link with vernacular plant uses as it was originally planted here to supply berries for use as hatpin ends’ [RV, 8 April 2012].

2. According to Richard Mabey, Flora Britannica, 1996, p.433: ‘The name … originated because bundles of the spiny stalks were once used to scour butchers’ blocks. In the mid-seventeenth century, a few writers mention another butchers’ gadget, a miniature indoor hedge made of its branches and placed around meat to keep mice at bay.’ He also quotes from W.A. Bromfield’s Flora Vectensis, 1856, in which it is recorded that butchers on the Isle of Wight, decked ‘their mighty Christmas sirloins with the berry-bearing twigs’ [Josie Watson, 10 April 2012].

3. According to my 1850 edition of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal:
Butcher’s broom is ‘a plant of Mars, being of a gallant cleansing and opening quality. The decoction of the root made with wine openeth obstructions, provoketh urine, helpeth to expel gravel and the stone, the stranguary and women’s course, and also the yellow jaundice and the head ache: and with some honey or sugar put thereunto, cleanseth the breast of phlegm, and the chest of such clammy humours gathered therein. The decoction of the root drank, and a poultice made of the berries and leaves being applied are being effectual in knitting and consolidating broken bones or parts out of joint. The common way of using it is to boil the root and parsley, fennel and smallage in white wine, and drink the decoction, adding the like quantity of grass root to them: the more of the root you boil the stronger will the decoction be; it works no ill effects, yet I hope you have wit enough to give the strongest decoction to the strongest bodies’ [Joyce Mackett, 24 April 2012].

4.  Toby Buckland in Herbs 40, 2: 10, 2015, notes that in the Azores ‘street cleaners still use butcher’s broom … to sweep the roads’ [RV, 9 June 2015].

5.  F.H. Perring, P.D. Sell & S.M. Walters, in their Flora of Cambridgeshire (1964), note:  [Butcher’s broom was] ‘once cultivated at Whittlesford for its use in preparing chamois leather and parchment.  It was know by the workers as “knee-um” – knee-holm or knee-holly.  They found that its sharp leaf branches sprinkled water on to the leather better than anything else’ [RV, 19 December 2019].


upper, Therfield Heath, Royston, Hertfordshire, May 2016.                                  lower, bunch of butcher’s broom in the scullery of Ham House, a 17th century National Trust property in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, presumably such bunches were used for scrubbing surfaces, but, according to a label in the House’s ‘border of 17th century remedies’, ‘it was used to protect food from mice’, October 2021.

Updated 29 October 2021.

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