(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 17, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
This is the story that I was told long ago: In the Middle Ages, broom lent its name and its twigs and branches to the tool that women used for sweeping. It was said the plant could ward off witches! With a story like that, you can imagine just how interesting the plant became for me. There was only one drawback. There was an Old English saying that went something like this: If you sweep the house with blossomed broom in May, you will be sure to sweep the head of the household away.
Well, I made brooms of the branches and twigs of the broom plant, but never if it was in bloom. It kept the floor and the porch of my playhouse fairly neat, and I was very careful since I was the only head of the household of my playhouse. I sure didn't want to be swept away.
My grandmother had the plant growing in the field on the hillside beside her home, and one fine fall day she was out burning trash near the field of broom. The wind started to blow and sparks from the trash blew onto the dried broom bushes. They caught fire and it took my dad and several uncles along with a water hose and much digging before they got the fire out. The next spring they used farm tools and cleared the field so that my grandmother could use it for her vegetable garden, and that was the end of my experiences with broom. But the brooms I made from it lasted many years.
There is also a bit of historical importance attached to broom. It seems that an early count somewhere in Europe adopted it as a badge and fixed it to his helmet, perhaps so that his troops could easily follow him in battle. And sometime later, King Louis IX of France chose broom as its emblem of humility. I am not sure these stories are true, but in teaching heraldic symbolism in the course of my career of teaching humanities, this was one of the many facts that I found.
Broom, Cytisus scoparius, is also known as Scotch broom, and since most of my family came from that area, the name stuck for them. It grows in sandy coastal areas and roadsides, as well as in open woods. Today in North America, it seems that the plant has become invasive in some areas, but quite controllable in others. Those who live on the west coast find that it is completely invasive, and they have difficulty ridding themselves of it once it takes hold in their gardening area. Those of us closer to the east find that it is easily contained. Those much wiser than I can explain it better than I can, but I suspect it has something to do with the climate differences.
Scotch broom had medicinal value, too, all those many years ago. Early on it was recommended as a diuretic and as a purgative. It was at one time a common treatment for a variety of ailments. Supposedly King Henry VIII drank the distilled water of the flowers when he was ill. Some modern herbalists say that broom is a diuretic and a strong laxative, but official medicine recommends against its use because the tops of the broom plant contain poisons.
My relationship with the plant was short lived, because after it burned on my grandmother's hillside, I don't remember seeing it anymore. I always thought it had the prettiest flowers, though. It is a stiffly branched shrub that grow to 10 feet. I don't remember that the leaves were very large, but I do remember the flowers. The ones I knew were a golden yellow and looked very much like a sweet pea. They bloom singly or in pairs along the branches and are followed by brown, hairy seedpods about 2 or 3 inches long.
I always wanted to pick branches of it to place in the mason fruit jars that my mom had given me to use as vases. I reasoned that when the blooms died away, I could make more brooms from what was left of the remaining twigs and branches. I think I was too afraid of the consequences to do that though, so I usually waited for the blooms to close before I made my brooms. Cutting the twigs to the same length, then attaching them with glue and twine to an old, worn out, cut down to my size broom handle was a lot of fun. I think my parents were cooperative with all the broom handles because making a broom took time, and kept me out of other mischief. I hate to think that this lovely shrub has become invasive in some parts of the country, because it truly is a very lovely bush when it blooms in late spring and summer. In my opinion, it rivaled forsythia in its beauty, and to me Scotch broom always won.
Photos from this article are from Plant Files. Thanks to the excellent photography of Bootandall, rwc_gardener, and wannadanc for the use of their photos.