Butcher’s broom

Particolare di un cespuglio di pungitopo nel suo contesto vegetale (Fototeca ISAL)
Detail of a Butcher’s broom shrub in its habitat (ISAL Photo Archive)

It is a low evergreen shrub with robust, branched and creeping rhizomes. The Butcher’s broom presents branches spread out on the middle and base part of aerial trunks. Once typically diffused in the pre-alpine Lombardy woods and hilly zones, today this plant has almost disappeared. It grows spontaneously in some parts of the Villa Crivelli Pusterla garden, can reach a height of 80-90 cm from the ground, and testifies to the biodiversity heritage of the site. Its flowers are not flashy and are difficult to see since they generally appear alone or at most, in small groups. They grow on the lower leaf of the cladodes or flattened stems, and their cover is composed of six, greenish brown petals with lengths of 2-2.5 millimeters.

The fruits are very attractive, and consist of bright red round berries which contain one or two big, whitish-cream seeds. The complete development of the berries occurs in winter after the flowering stage and they stay on the plant for 60-100 days after maturation. This plant owes its name to the Greek-Latin terms rugchos (beak, rostrum) and aculeatus (with thorns), referring to the characteristic shape of its foliage. In common language, the Ruscus aculeatus is instead called butcher’s broom since in the past it was used to be put around the foodstuff left to mature in the cellar, to keep the rodents and mice away.
Already renowned in ancient times, also thanks to Plinius who praised the herbal teas achieved with the roots to treat kidney diseases, over the last years the plant has almost disappeared, so that in some parts of Italy it is considered a protected species. It is no longer picked for its diuretic-laxative, anti-inflammatory and vein-constricting and laxative properties. The Butcher’s broom is particularly looked for as a Christmas décor. Its specific lenitive and refreshing properties or its cellulite-reducing effects have almost been forgotten. Likewise, in the Lombard plains and hills of Brianza, people have lost the habit of tasting its fresh shoots with a slightly bitter taste, boiled in slightly salted water, or using the berries as a coffee substitute. The purple berries of this plant were also once used for the artisanal production of colored pigments, a property which was recently confirmed by university studies.
It has practically become an ornamental plant, rarely found to grow spontaneously in Lombardy, and its presence in Limbiate constitutes an ulterior testimonial to the beauty of the place and its cultural-botanical value.