Butcher's broom is the root of the plant Ruscus aculeatus. R. aculeatus is a common evergreen shrub native to Mediterranean countries. It is related to asparagus. The shrub grows to less than 3 ft (1 m) in height and about the same size in girth in shady, moist, uncultivated ground. Its leaves are small and laced with brown membranes. The root, which is the medicinal part, is fleshy. Butcher's
broom has a few small greenish white flowers that mature into red, cherry-sized berries. This herb has spread to many other parts of the world including Great Britain, the United States, and western Asia. Other names for Butcher's broom include kneeholm, knee holly, sweet broom, Jew's myrtle, pettigree, and box holly.
Butcher's broom has been used in folk medicine as far back as the first century a.d. In the past, it was used as a laxative and as a treatment for gout, jaundice, kidney stones , and broken bones. It was also used as a diuretic to reduce swelling in the hands and feet, and to reduce inflammation due to arthritis. At one time, the plant was eaten as a vegetable in the United States. The seeds have been roasted and used as a coffee substitute.
Few of these uses survive today. Modern herbalists primarily use butcher's broom as supportive therapy for poor circulation, hemorrhoids , varicose vein syndrome, and other manifestations of leaky vein walls and poor venous blood return to the heart. For these conditions, it is taken internally. Although butcher's broom will not cure these conditions, it is used to relieve symptoms such as leg cramps, pain , heaviness in the legs, swelling of the legs and feet, and it can strengthen vein walls. Butcher's broom is also used externally as an ointment or suppository to treat itching and burning associated with hemorrhoids.
Butcher's broom had been in decline as a medicinal herb until the 1950s. Then researchers discovered that an extract of the root contained two compounds, ruscogenin and neuorscogenin, that could constrict the veins in dogs and other laboratory animals. This improves blood flow and increases the strength and tone of those veins.
Interest in butcher's broom increased. The herb was included in many popular formulations for treating poor leg circulation in Europe (and less so in the United States). A few controlled human studies were conducted. People showed some of the same reactions to the drug as laboratory animals, but the improvements in blood flow were slight, and little was known about the safety of the drug. As a result, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) felt the study data was not conclusive enough to approve butcher's broom as a drug. However, the German Federal Health Agency's Commission E (established in 1978 to independently review and evaluate scientific literature and case studies on herb and plant medications) has approved butcher's broom for use in alleviating the discomforts associated with chronic venous insufficiency.
There is less scientific data about treating hemorrhoids with butcher's broom. Although there are compounds in butcher's broom that constrict blood vessels and reduce inflammation, it isn't clear whether these compounds are effective in ointments and suppositories applied externally to hemorrhoids. Recent research done in Palestine also suggests that extracts of R. aculeatus have a mild and selective antifungal property. Although initial studies look promising, more controlled research needs to be done on people to conclusively define the role of butcher's broom in healing.
The root of butcher's broom is harvested in the fall and dried before use. It is available in commercial capsules, tablets, and tinctures for internal use, and in ointments and suppositories for external use. Tablets often contain about 300 mg of the dried extract. However, patients should follow package directions or directions from their healthcare provider in using this herb.
Not much is known about the safety of butcher's broom, which is one reason why the FDA did not approve its use as a drug. However, no health problems are known to result when this herb is used as directed, and it has been used for centuries. People with high blood pressure should not take butcher's broom. Conditions for which butcher's broom is used can be serious. This herb is intended as supportive therapy for these conditions. People with chronic venous insufficiency should be under the care of a trained doctor.
In rare cases, butcher's broom may cause nausea and stomach upset. No other side effects have been reported.
It is not known how butcher's broom interacts with any other herbs or medicines. Few, if any, scientific studies have been done on its interactions with traditional medications.
Pierce, Andrea. The American Pharmaceutical Association Practical Guide to Natural Medicines. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1999.
PDR for Herbal Medicines. Montvale, New Jersey: Medical Economics Company, 1998.
"Plants for the Future: Ruscus aculeatus." http://www.metalab.unc.edu.