Country Diary: In search of a versatile plant with many uses

Butcher's broom bearing colourful scarlet berries.
Butcher's broom bearing colourful scarlet berries.

Falsgrave used to be an isolated village. From Cambridge Place, the Strawberry Gardens occupied a large area from 1815 to the 1914-18 war. The row of cottages at the far end are remnants of such times.

Of greater interest perhaps, is the area near Falsgrave’s traffic lights. Look up at Falsgrave’s old school’s clock tower, built in 1873. To the left is ‘Life’s Energy’, and if you gaze up towards the roof, near the top is a cow’s head! This indicates its earlier occupation by a butcher.

Our viewing of the cow’s head, immediately re-kindled our interest in a plant once associated with butchers, namely the butcher’s broom! Although it’s a plant found mainly in shady places in southern England, we knew of a few local sites to re-visit.

We first headed to the Esplanade, and followed the sign to the Italian Gardens. If you go, just zig zag down the paths and beyond a seat, to bear right. At the corner is a single plant – sadly reduced to no more that one foot in height by council workers! So-off we went to Hutton Buscel’s churchyard to view six bushes spaced between yew trees to the right of the church drive. There are few stranger plants that butcher’s broom. It has not true leaves, but leaf-like structures which are really oval, spiny-tipped flattened stems. Being dark green, thick and rigid, this plant is an evergreen. It’s a much-branched plant with finely grooved stems, and feels quite spiny.

Now why do we associate it with butchers? Well, according to tradition, bundles of mature branches were sold to butchers for sweeping their blocks clean of meat scraps. Sometimes joints of meat were encircled with the spiny branches to ward off mice.

When bearing berries, it was so colourful that it was used to decorate homes during the winter months. We searched in vain for berries, but found none whatsoever.

You have to look hard to find the tiny flowers between January and April, as they are situated in the middle of each ‘leaf’. Male and female flowers are often found on different branches, and the globe-shaped, bright red berries are produced from the previous year when flower. Examine each ‘leaf’, and you’ll see where flowers have been, and maybe will berry later.

As winter days draw nearer, you maybe suffer from chilblains. If you’ve tried desperately to cure, help prevent them, here’s a simple remedy you may (or may not) choose to try. It couldn’t be easier, as you just beat the affected area with a bunch of butcher’s broom to stimulate you circulation.

Another commercial use which has tenuous connections with the meat trade, is as a sprinkler. Apparently there was nothing better than the sharp-pointed ‘leafy’ branches of butcher’s broom for sprinkling water evenly over raw chamois leather and parchment.