At this time of year, the days are at their shortest and can be rather on the gloomy side. Darkness seems to set in halfway through the afternoon and were it not for Christmas there would be little to be cheerful about. Thankfully, even by late January the days will be drawing out noticeably.
There are, of course, some shrubs and trees that we identify with this time of year, such as the holly and the ivy, which were mentioned last month because they are evergreen at a time when most are bare and dormant. One other can be added to these two in the form of butcher’s broom. A slow-growing woodland plant tolerating deep shade, Butcher’s broom is so called because of the sharp spines that tip the leaves. The stiff branches were bundled up and used to clean off wooden butchers’ blocks. Apparently, they even contain anti-bacterial oils.
A careful examination of this small evergreen reveals some interesting facts. The deep green ‘leaves’ are, in fact, modified branches. This explains why the rather insignificant and small flowers grow from the centre of these ‘leaves’ and large berries develop to dwarf them, so that at this time of year these shrubs with their berries have a wonderfully festive look. They are, however, very poisonous and they will rupture and destroy red blood cells if eaten. However, the roots of the plant have been used since the times of the ancient Greeks for a range of medicinal and other uses and parts of the plant are still used today. In North Africa, the seeds are roasted and ground as a palatable coffee substitute.
There is only a single butcher’s broom shrub on the Sudbury riverside, and this probably arrived in the form of a seed washed downstream during flooding. This particular seed came to rest in a suitable location where it could germinate and grow. Twenty-five years on it is still a small shrub but each year it now produces an increasing number of beautiful berries to brighten up a gloomy December day.