My first encounter with Butcher’s Broom was when I was 17 and doing ‘A’ level Biology. It was a preserved specimen in alcohol and as such was a faded army green colour and smelled alcoholic, which was much better than the preserved animals we had to dissect and draw, these were normally preserved in formalin.
The reason for looking at it was because this plant has a peculiar adaptation to reduce water loss. Its leaves are tiny and almost invisible. However to compensate for this reduction in photosynthetic surface, the stem has developed large flattened protuberances which look exactly like leaves and of course are green. So in the photo to the left the oval green spiked things that look like leaves are actually flattened extensions from the stem. These are technically called phylloclades, or sometimes Cladodes. The word cladodes refers to flattened stems, that are green and carry out photosynthesis, typically in Cacti like Opuntia and in the group known as Christmas cactus.
Phylloclades, are a subset of cladodes, and are those that greatly resemble or perform the function of leaves. These are less common and are what we have with the Butcher’s Broom. There are several species related to Butchers Broom that also have these adaptations. One that looks very similar but is not a native to the UK is called Ceaser’s Laurel. The little, photo to the left is of Ceasars Laurel, (with thanks to wikipedia for that one).
There are a couple of questions I have about this adaptation. Firstly why does a woodland plant need to develop an adaptation to prevent water loss? Woodlands after all are blessed with humid, shady, cool conditions and they have a soil that has a good layer of humus and leaf litter which is damp and retains water. Secondly one of the important features of leaves are the stomata, little pores on the underside which allow Carbon Dioxide to enter the leaf and be used for photosynthesis. Presumably the flattened stems will not have this advantage and so the efficiency of the photosynthetic process will be reduced, not a good thing in a shady woodland.
Having studied Butcher’s Broom at school, I largely forgot about it along with 50% of the other stuff I had learnt. I next came across it when we lived in Spain for three years. I have also quite often seen it in France, There is lots of it growing in the woods near our house in Poitou-Charentes. I am not sure if I have seen it in the UK until recently, certainly not in East Anglia.Here are some photos from the woods behind our French house. Most bushes had either one berry or none,. I found just one bush that had about 25 berries on it. I do not know if they are eaten by the birds or maybe small mammals.
The rest of the photos in this post were taken in Gloucestershire at a small reserve in Quedgeley on the outskirts of Gloucester. I had looked up Butchers Broom on google because I needed some photos and several places were suggested and this was one of them. Butcher’s Broom has quite a southerly distribution in the UK, I suspect we are on the northern edge of its range.
As it says on the information board, this reserve was part of the garden to Quedgeley House. There is just one small area in the centre of the reserve where there are about 8 bushes growing, it is almost certain that they were planted when it was a garden. I could not find any young plants, so it is not spreading. Possibly the fruits are not forming or the seeds are not viable. Butcher’s Broom is dioecious, ie has separate male flowers on one plant and female on another. I only found plants with female flowers at this site but most of the flowers had gone over, the first flush of flowers are very early and I was visiting on 23rd January 2018. The flowers that had finished did seem to be swelling into little round fruits. These eventually develop into quite large round red fruits, the size of a large pea. Having said that the photo below was taken in March 2018 so flowering does go on for a couple of months.
These bushes in Quedgeley were very tall and dense, the ones I am familiar with are usually quite low and with a rather open habit. Normally not much above 75 cm tall. These were around 150 cm high, giants! As you can see from the photo the flowers are small and develop in the centre of the phylloclade. They have three petals and three sepals and are green with a slight purple blush edging. If you know your plants then this structure might remind you of Snowdrops which this plant is indeed related to, both being part of the Asparagaceae.
Being an ex garden the reserve had several other woodland wildflowers showing through, there were a lot of Winter Aconites in flower and a few Snowdrops, there were also leaves of Cyclamen, Lesser Periwinkle, and probably Bluebells and Daffodils, it is certainly an asset to that area of Gloucester.