Ruscus is an underrated evergreen that offers dark-green glossy foliage and plump red berries. They have an unusual feature in that the apparent "leaves" are actually flattened branches, known as cladodes or cladophylls.
The leaves themselves are tiny papery scales that are pretty inconspicuous. The flowers are equally diminutive and appear in the middle of the cladodes. Male and female flowers grow on separate plants, apart from the several hermaphrodite forms that produce berries like the females, if they are successfully pollinated.
It is only a small genus of six species. They are all evergreen subshrubs and spread via underground stems. They come from habitats ranging from Madeira to Iran and the plants are generally hardy, although the florist’s favourite, R. hypophyllum, is more tender and can suffer outside.
The best-known species in the garden is R. aculeatus, also known as "butcher’s broom", which has spiny tipped cladodes and bright-red berries. It is tolerant of dense shade, which makes it a useful plant.
The next most common species is R. hypoglossum, the "spineless butcher’s broom". This is a shorter plant than R. aculeatus but with larger foliage and without the spikiness, and small green flowers.
The rarely seen R. colchicus, which was introduced by Roy Lancaster, has a similar appearance to R. hypoglossum but this plant’s flowers are produced on the underside of the cladodes.
R. hypophyllum, which is also known as "thick-leaved butcher’s broom", is popular with florists because of its neat green leaves, short-stalked tiny flowers and large berries. Its close relative Danae racemosa Award of Garden Merit, which has much softer foliage, is also widely used by florists.
Not being hardy in UK gardens, R. hypophyllum is usually bought as cut foliage for arranging, but plants can be risked outside and may survive if cut to the ground before winter. Choose a sheltered position or give it protection over winter.
Referring to R. hypoglossum, Bean says "no evergreen shrub thrives better than this in shade and in competition with the roots of greedy trees" — that is some recommendation. R. aculeatus also does well in deep shade and its prickly form is a good deterrent if needed. They can cope with dry areas and are comfortable in all types of soil so are highly adaptable.
Being so easy to grow, it only remains important to provide male and female plants of the dioecious species, such as R. aculeatus and R. hypoglossum, to get the attractive berries. There are several self-fertile hermaphrodite forms available. These are the main varieties that are grown on nurseries in the UK, including R. aculeatus ‘John Redmond’ PBR, ‘Wheeler’s Variety’ and ‘Christmas Berry’
What the specialists say
David Cann, National Collection holder, Devon
"Garden-wise, R. aculeatus is the best known. Hardy, drought-tolerant and a good survivor in deep shade. Like other plants that survive extremes, they look best with some care. Remove stems as they die back to keep it tidy. The next most common species is R. hypoglossum. It’s very different in foliage, shorter with bigger cladodes that are not spine-tipped as in R. aculeatus. It is hardy and shade-tolerant. I have seen it in Croatia under a dense beech canopy.
"R. hypophyllum is the florist’s Ruscus. It is not too hardy and where it survives outside is often cut to the ground. Good shelter or being under cover will give good foliage for cut flowers. Also grown is the related Danae racemosa. This is hardy. The stems branch, it is good in the garden and fruits on its own.
"No fruit? The sexes are on different plants. Examine closely for the shiny knob of the female stigma or the pollen-covered tip of the male column, each surrounded by six small petal-like structures. The females need to be seen — tuck the males behind out of sight. Hermaphrodite plants are available. Being hermaphrodite is the normal state for the majority of the plants we grow in British gardens."
Peter Chapman, managing director, Perryhill Nurseries, East Sussex
"We only buy in, to grow on, R. aculeatus ‘John Redmond as it is self-fertile and berries freely even as a young plant. We find it slow-growing but quite appealing when covered with berries. They suit a shady, even dark site and will tolerate dry soils. We have a solitary plant growing in our wood that hardly seems to get any bigger despite being there for many years."
Peter Jones, garden manager for hardy ornamentals, RHS Garden Wisley, Surrey
"This often overlooked evergreen can easily be passed by. But this spiny small plant has many redeeming features in its favour that rightly earn it a place in the garden. Often known as the ‘butcher’s broom’, or the ‘box holly’, Ruscus are in fact subshrubs with the unusual habit of producing flattened, leaf-like cladophylls, which on aculeatus have a spiky quality.
"It has earnt itself a reputation of being as tough as old boots because of some useful characteristics. It will thrive quite happily in the deep dry shade of low tree canopies and
while being slow-growing in time will spread to produce a spiny matt of green foliage. Also, in contrast, it will happily grow in dry full sun — very much a renaissance ground cover plant.
"R. aculeatus ‘John Redmond’ is a clone selected for its particularly
red and glossy berries, providing great winter interest, like a green carpet covered in red cherries. It adds an extra dimension to our woodland plantings.
"R. aculeatus ‘Sparkler’ is another good selection that produces berries — slightly more orange in colour — in vast numbers. We use this variety as a valuable ground cover and as a suppresser of weeds for some of our areas of Battleston Hill here at Wisley.
"R. colchicus is more of a rarity, but it is a lovely plant all the same. Colchicus is hardly what you would expect from a Ruscus at all. The foliage is larger, thicker and glossy.
It was a happy surprise when I first discovered these luxurious plants merrily thriving under a large Hamamelis. This is definitely worth a try if you are seeking something more unusual."
Species and varieties
R. aculeatus is a bushy subshrub with glossy lance-shaped "leaves". It flowers in spring, with glossy red berries produced on female plants in the summer and autumn. Height: 50cm-1m.
R. aculeatus ‘John Redmond’ PBR is a compact dwarf cultivar that produces red and glossy berries. It has small, spiny tipped, leathery green "leaves", is self-fertile and produces berries freely even when young. Slow-growing, it can be planted in shade and in dry soils. Height: 50cm-1m. Spread: 1m.
R. aculeatus ‘Lanceolatus’ produces distinctive long narrow "leaves" or cladodes. It is a female plant that will be pollinated by any male or hermaphrodite plant, and then producing the distinctive red fruit.
R. aculeatus ‘Sparkler’ produces masses of orangey-red berries. A valuable ground cover plant.
R. aculeatus ‘Wheeler’s Variety’ is a small, slow-growing spiny shrub of erect habit. It is a hermaphrodite form so will produce its striking large red berries without a pollination partner. Popular with flower arrangers. Shade-loving, so ideal for naturalising beneath trees.
R. colchicus is a slow-growing evergreen spreading shrub with dark-green elliptic "leaves" and minute green flowers at the true leaf axil. It produces red berry fruit. A good ground cover plant.
R. hypoglossum is a dwarf shrub forming clumps of "leafy" stems. It is a shorter plant than R. aculeatus, with bigger cladodes that do not have a spiny tip, and tiny yellowy-green flowers on the upper surface of the cladodes, subtended by a leaf-like bract. Male and female plants — females produce large red cherry-like fruits. Height: 45cm.
R. hypophyllum, the florist’s Ruscus, is an erect unbranched shrub with shortly-stalked dark-green leaves that end in an abrupt point. It has flowers on the upper and lower surfaces of the cladodes, subtended by a tiny bract. Cladodes are shorter and broader than on R. hypoglossum. Not hardy. Height: 60cm.
R. × microglossum is a hybrid of R. hypoglossum and R. hypophyllum that forms extensive thickets of suckering stems that are erect or arching. The cladodes are smaller and more slender than those of
R. hypoglossum. White and purple flowers are borne above and below the cladodes, subtended by a small bract. When pollinated, they produce plump bright-red fruit. Height: 60cm.