Cut flowers Perennials Tender perennials

Strange Protuberances On a Leaf

Butcher's broom with buds forming on a leaf.

By Larry Hodgson

Question: Several months ago, I received a bouquet of flowers. When the flowers wilted, one green branch still looked in fine shape, so I put it in a small vase of water in the hopes that there would be roots someday. So far, though, no luck. However, small protuberances appeared on the foliage. I tried removing them and sowing them, but nothing came up. I would like to know the name of this plant. And what are those little buds?

Diane Gaulin

Answer: Your photo shows a stem of spineless butcher’s broom (Ruscus hypophyllum), native to the Mediterranean region, although common butcher’s broom (R. aculeatus), with narrower, more abundant and definitely spinier “leaves” is also used commonly in floral arrangements. Florists often call one species “Israeli ruscus” (R. hypophyllum), because the stems are mainly produced in Israel while the stems of “Italian ruscus” (R. aculeatus) are mainly produced in Italy. 

These stems are sold to florists around the world as filler material.

A Leaf That Bears a Flower?

Butcher’s broom* is a shrublike evergreen perennial, but it’s definitely not a typical perennial. 

*The name “butcher’s broom” comes from the former use of clusters of these stems as brooms in butcher shops.

flowers of butcher’s broom in the middle of a leaf.
The flowers of butcher’s brooms appear in the center of what appears to be a leaf. Photo: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, Wikimedia Commons

Its most curious aspect is its foliage. The broad green pointed growths we take for leaves are not leaves, but rather flattened stems called cladodes. (The actual leaves are tiny and rarely noticed.) The plant photosynthesizes via these cladodes. When the plant blooms, small flowers emerge directly from either the top or the bottom of the “leaf” (cladode). How often do you see a leaf with a flower in the middle? But cladodes aren’t leaves, they’re stems and stems do bloom. The protrusions you noticed are actually little clusters of flower buds and faded flowers, not bulbs or seeds. This explains why nothing comes up when you try to sow them.

Fruits of spineless butcher’s broom
Fruits of spineless butcher’s broom (Ruscus hypophyllum). Photo: Andrew Karpov, Wikimedia Commons

Outdoors, if there is cross-pollination (plants are usually dioecious: male and female flowers are borne on different plants), the flowers lead to pretty red berries (poisonous to humans and pets, by the way). So, the fruits too seem to grow straight out of the center of a leaf … which is, we know now, actually a cladode.

The seeds in the fruits could be used for a sowing. Otherwise, gardeners usually propagate this suckering perennial by division.

Although the green stems can last for weeks or even months in water, they never take root. Thus, you can’t grow this plant from stem cuttings.

Growing Your Own Butcher’s Broom

Spineless butcher’s broom looking like a shrub.
Spineless butcher’s broom (R. hypophyllum) is used as a shade perennial in mild climates. Photo: James Steakley, Wikimedia Commons

Butcher’s brooms are not all that hardy. Common butcher’s broom (R. aculeatus) is the hardier of the two, adapted to USDA hardiness zones 7 to 9 (AgCan zones 8 to 9), meaning it will grow in milder parts of North America and in much of Europe, including the United Kingdom. Spineless butcher’s broom is usually good for USDA hardiness zones 8 to 10 (AgCan zones 8B to 10), so may do best in protected spots in those areas. 

Butcher’s brooms are usually used as groundcovers for shady to partially shady gardens (they tend to burn in full sun) and can even be used to create a short hedge (R aculeatus can reach 2 to 3 feet/60 to 90 cm in height; R. hypophyllum, about 18 inches/45 cm). Often the stems, whose berries are bright red in fall and winter, are used as Christmas decorations.

Both will grow in most soils, even poor, stony ones, and are very drought tolerant. In general, they require little care.

Butcher’s brooms (here R. hypophyllum) can theoretically be used as houseplants … provided you can find a plant and not just a stem! Photo: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

Theoretically, you could also grow this plant as a houseplant … provided you find a plant, not just a stem taken from a florist’s bouquet. But, in many areas where it isn’t hardy, plants of butcher’s brooms of any species are simply not available.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

5 comments on “Strange Protuberances On a Leaf

  1. WOW, Botany 101.
    Thanks, for another interesting subject.

  2. Thanks! I learn something new everyday!

  3. Ruth SUMMERSIDES

    Hi,
    I love your gardening tips and insightful knowledge, always interesting.
    I wonder if you can tell me how to propagate a Giant Fleece flower which grows to about 7 ft high and at least that wide. It is starting to overshadow some of my perennials. I’m in zone 2b.-3. The only advice I can find is to take roots or cuttings, but how exactly? I hope you can help. Thanks in advance.

    • Well, “taking roots” normally simply means dividing it, as you would almost any perennial. You don’t have to dig up the entire plant (that can be quite an undertaking): in the spring, when the previous year’s stems are out of the way, just dig out a section a bit like you’d cut out a piece of pie. That will probably give you several “buds” and you can cut the clump into several plants. Root stem cuttings in early summer. They can be from side branches. Take about an 8 inch length, remove any buds or flowers, and insert into a pot of moist potting soil, covering with a clear plastic bag or dome to maintain high humidity. It’s just basic cutting care.

  4. Those things are SO weird; like the phyllodes of Acacia melanoxylon, but even weirder because they bloom. (Phyllodes are merely petioles, rather than stems.)

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