How to Grow and Care for Ruscus

Bright red clusters of berries on dark green leafed shrub

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The Ruscus genus comprises roughly seven different species of flowering plants. The term Ruscus is derived from an old Latin term meaning "prickly plants." One of the more widely-known varieties, Ruscus aculeatus, is known by the common name Butcher's broom. Ruscus plants are related to both lilies and asparagus, though they really has very little else in common with those plants. Depending on the species, Ruscus plants have wide-ranging origins including northern Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The bright green leaves and red berries of Ruscus create vibrant color in winter, making it a desirable landscape plant. It grows well in shady wooded areas and adds a bit of color to the woodland garden. Some varieties are rounded and compact, some erect and a bit taller, while others have a spreading habit.

Common Name Butcher's broom, horse tongue lily
Botanical Name  Ruscus 
Family  Asparagaceae
Plant Type  Evergreen 
Mature Size  3 feet tall
Sun Exposure  Partial to full shade
Soil Type  Well-drained, slightly acidic
Soil pH  3 - 5
Bloom Time   Late winter to early spring
Flower Color  White, purple or yellow 
Hardiness Zones  6 - 9, USA
Native Areas Africa, Asia, Europe, Eurasia
Evergreen shrub with pointed oval leaves and bright red berries in woodland setting

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Ruscus Care

Ruscus is a fairly low-maintenance plant and establishes easily in the right conditions. It isn't bothered by pests or diseases, and deer leave it alone. Birds are attracted to the berries in winter, and some may perch within the prickly leaves for protection from wind and safety from predators.

Light

Ruscus thrives in full or partial shade, and because it is drought-tolerant, will do well in your dry shade areas. If it gets too much sun in hot weather, the color may fade.

Soil

This plant is tolerant of many soil types, including clay or alkaline soils. Its preferred soil culture is a well-drained, slightly acidic sandy loam. It does not do well in wet soils as this can cause the roots to rot over time.

Water

Although Ruscus is known to be very drought-tolerant, regular doses of rain keep the foliage looking vibrant. If there is a long period of hot dry weather and the foliage begins to fade, deep watering every three days or so will help revive it.

Temperature and Humidity

Ruscus is generally only cold-hardy to zone 6 in the U.S. If grown in a place with harsh winters, planting near a structure for wind protection is a good idea. Ruscus enjoys warm temperatures and does fine in humidity.

Types of Ruscus

Ruscus comprises a large genus of similar plants; the seven different species in this genus are as follows:

  • Ruscus asculeatus: This variety is widely known as Butcher's broom, and is native to Eurasia. It tolerates deep shade and is often found growing in woodlands. The flowers are white touched with purple. These evergreen shrubs can grow up to 3 feet tall. This variety is the most common source of the cultivars most often grown in the USA.
  • Ruscus colchicus: This type is native to Caucasus and is found in mountainous regions there.
  • Ruscus hypoglossum: This variety is native to central and southeast Europe and Turkey. It is also known by the common folk names of Spineless butcher's broom, Mouse thorn, and Horse tongue lily. It grows about 18 inches high and has small yellow flowers. The leaves are flattened and somewhat smoother and less prickly than other varieties.
  • Ruscus hypophyllum: Native to Iberia and northwest Africa. Another version of Spineless butcher's broom. This one is often used in the floral trade as foliage.
  • Ruscus hyrcanus: This variety is native to Crimea, Iran, and Armenia. It has a compact shape and grows to a maximum height of about 20 inches. It is known for its many prickly branches and is considered a somewhat-endangered native plant species to be protected in Azerbaijan.
  • Ruscus microglossus: This variety is native to southern Europe.
  • Ruscus streptophyllus: This variety is native to Madeira.

There are also a few different cultivars available for home gardens. Unless noted, all of these require both male and female plants for pollination and berry production, similar to holly and yew shrubs.

  • 'John Redmond': This has very glossy red berries and is a nice choice for winter interest and attracting songbirds. It has a spreading growth habit.
  • 'Christmas Berry': As its name suggests, this one produces an impressive display of brightly colored berries that remain through the winter season. It tends to be slower-growing than other varieties.
  • 'Wheeler's Variety': This one is hermaphroditic, which means it self-pollinates, can be planted on its own, and will still produce berries.
  • 'Sparkler': This popular creeping variety is an effective ground cover and produces an abundance of red-orange berries.
  • 'Elizabeth Lawrence': Also hermaphroditic, this compact variety has erect stems that produce large red berries.

Pruning

Being a slow-growing and well-shaped perennial, the ruscus doesn't require much pruning. Damaged branches or leaves should be trimmed as needed. Dead shoots should be cut to ground level in spring.

Propagating Ruscus

Seeds can be harvested from female plants. They need a period of cold stratification before planting in late winter or early spring. Grow them in a sunny window or greenhouse, making sure they receive adequate water. They may also benefit from some soil nutrients every other month.

The germination for the ruscus is extremely slow, and can take up to 12 months. Once seedlings appear, grow them in containers for another year before planting outside. The young plants may be susceptible to slug damage, but once they mature and grow a prickly surface, slugs will leave them alone.

How to Get Ruscus to Bloom

The plant bears flowers in late winter and these appear in the middle of the leaf instead of a stem. Flower color can also vary, from white to greenish-white to purple to yellow, although in general, the flowers are not showy on this plant, and the red berries are the main source of visual interest.

Some varieties require pollination to produce berries, and some do not; the female plants produce berries, but hermaphroditic plants will also produce them. The berries grow in clusters, or sometimes singly, and are round with a slightly flattened top and bottom.

FAQ
  • How is ruscus different from holly?

    Ruscus plants are much slower growing than holly, and only reach a maximum of 3 feet, so they need much less pruning than holly shrubs and can be grown in smaller landscapes.

  • Can I grow ruscus in zone 5?

    With winter protection and mulch, you may be able to grow ruscus in this zone. Be sure it is planted near a structure for additional cold and wind protection.