Sunday, May 18, 2014

Renewing my acquaintance with knee holly

Half a century ago, when I was enjoying a feral childhood in the foothills of the South Downs in Sussex, I'd sometimes trespass through a hornbeam coppice on my way home and would pass clumps of a strange, painfully spiky plant that bore weird, purple starfish-shaped flowers in the middle of its leaves, that were followed in winter by very large scarlet berries. 

A few years later, when I was studying A level botany under the guidance of an inspirational Yorkshire botanist called Bill Jackson, I finally understood what I had been looking at. The plant was butchers' broom Ruscus aculeatus and Bill pointed out that, incredible as I might seem, this plant was a member of the lily family. And he pointed out that the 'leaves' weren't leaves at all, but were flattened stems called cladodes.

Fast-forward fifty years, to Durham University Botanic Garden this afternoon and a feeling of deja vu, because there in the shrub  border was butchers bloom, complete with some of those starfish-shaped little purple flowers. It was good to see it again.

It was never a very common plant when I was a kid but I'm glad to see that it seems to be holding its own, judging from the account in the Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. It's only native in the southern counties and up here in Durham it's a long way from home. It spreads slowly via creeping rhizomes and in the past was harvested and bound into bunches for sweeping sawdust from butchers' floors - hence the common name. Its spectacular berries meant that it was also cut as a Christmas decoration. The plant is dioecious (with separate male and female plants) and you need both sexes if you want the spectacular scarlet berries, so the hornbeam coppice must had had both present. 

One of the other things that drew it to my attention as a small boy in shorts was that its stiff, spiny cladodes could give you some painful scratches on your bare legs so its alternative name - knee holly - was particularly apt.


  1. What a strange plant, never seen it befor so thanks for sharing..
    Amanda x

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Something that I have never seen, what an interesting plant.