Every spring Scotch Broom flowers profusely along Highway 49 and other local roadways, oblivious to the controversy created by its presence here and worldwide. Native to southern Europe and northern Africa, Scotch Broom, with its abundant yellow blossoms, was introduced into the US as a beautiful ornamental garden plant. Later it was used as a way to stabilize new roads. In California today, it is labeled a Class C noxious weed.
Most native plant enthusiasts and environmentalists hate Scotch Broom for its prolific seed production with up to 12,000 seeds per plant that can last for up to 80 years through drought and fire. It overtakes other plants and wildflowers that local wildlife depends on for survival. Also, Scotch Broom clogs streams and presents a fire hazard in an area especially vulnerable to fire: Nevada County. If that weren’t enough, many people are allergic to its pollen.
The only way to get rid of Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius, pea family) is to remove the entire root system and plant. For $129, you can purchase a tool that claims to pull up Scotch Broom roots and stems in just 20 seconds. If you would rather attack the plant in a group effort, you can participate in annual Broom removal workdays offered by many local non-profit agencies.
With all of these efforts to eradicate Scotch Broom, why do some people love it enough to celebrate its beauty with festivals, use it as medicine, take it as a psychoactive, and make traditional crafts from its branches?
Lovers of Scotch Broom on Bainbridge Island, Washington, include the Chamber of Commerce and local real estate agents. They proudly host a Scotch Broom Festival with “veneration of the golden weed” and a parade down Winslow Way.
In Germany, the governmental commission that evaluates the effectiveness and safety of herbs has approved Scotch Broom for “functional heart and circulatory disorders.” Used medicinally are all of the above-ground parts of the plant, taken in an alcohol extract equivalent to 1Ð1.5 grams of the “drug.” There are no side effects listed, but it can interact with drugs that are MAO-inhibitors.
Before you say goodbye to your heart doctor, Medline, a database of the National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, advises that serious toxicity may occur from taking large amounts of the compound sparteine, which is present in the above-ground parts of Scotch Bloom. However, Medline does say that the plant is generally considered safe as a flavoring, as a coloring agent, and in small amounts taken by healthy adults.
Other claimed positive medicinal effects include using the above-ground parts of Scotch Broom to stimulate labor during childbirth (due to the presence of sparteine) and using it as an obesity treatment. One initial clinical study showed antioxidant activity.
If you prefer flower essences and are troubled by global warming, Scotch Broom can be used to address trauma from world events. According to the company Garden Plum, which sells 1Ú4 oz for $7.80, “Scotch Broom gives tenacity and strength, enabling the individual to move from personal despair to impersonal service and concern for the welfare of the world.”
Some Scotch Broom enthusiasts enjoy it for the mystical properties reportedly experienced when smoking the plant. Several websites sell a mix of herbs for smoking, including the upper flowering part of Scotch Broom in a blend called Vision’s Quest, claimed to be “masterfully blended for reaching the pinnacle of your meditative experience and pleasures.” One ounce sells for $9.95; another site offers three grams for $29. Medline provides the potential downer on your next shamanic journey, “Smoking cigarettes containing scotch broom carries a risk of inhalation of fungal contaminants (aspergillus), with a possibility of resulting fungal pneumonia.”
Historically, Scotch Broom has been part of a long tradition of European crafts and was used by “witches” for broomsticks. Researchers have found that in Italy, Scotch Broom was used to sweep chimney flues, cowsheds, farmyards, and streets. Brooms were typically made by men, who bound together the stems while still fresh and then used them once they were dry.
With industrialized farming, availability of cheap, synthetic broom materials, and reduced numbers of craftspeople, the traditional knowledge of how to make brooms is no longer passed between generations and is dying out across Europe.
Some environmentalists and herbalists argue that Scotch Broom isn’t the problem. One herb company even sells packages of 30 seeds for $2.95. In response to angry letters, the company argued, “The plant is not only an earth healing nitrogen fixer but also a potent medicinal plant used to strengthen and regulate the heartbeat, treating arrhythmia and edema associated with congestive heart failure.” The company also points to evidence documented by the USDA Forest Service that intact forests are not susceptible to the invasiveness of Scotch Broom. It is humans, with their roads, logging, and environmental disturbances that are the problem.
Whether we like it or not, Scotch Broom is here to stay. In these tight financial times, why not use it as a source of revenue for our community? We could develop green, locally produced, natural crafts. Who knows, tourists might even flock to Nevada City for a Scotch Broom Festival.
Alicia Funk, a resident of Nevada City, is a member of the Board of Directors of the California Native Plant Society, Redbud Chapter, and editor of The Botanical Safety Handbook, Herbal Medicine, The Commission E Monographs and The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
What to do with Scotch Broom if you can’t get rid of it
n Design a spring wreath, complimenting Scotch Broom with local berries. Women’s Deals, Crafts Company encourages us to “Think out of the classic circle with this refreshingly modern wreath that is pretty enough to go anywhere in the house.”
n Paint a mug or a plate with an image of Scotch Broom. Sara’s Vietri ceramic salad plate goes for $168, and her mugs are priced reasonably at $32 each.
n Heal with it. Try making the flower essence or medicinal extract. To make a medicinal extract, you’ll need a coffee grinder (don’t reuse for coffee), Mason jar, dropper bottles, and cheesecloth. Dry the above-ground parts just prior to flowering, chop and grind as finely as possible, and then place in a Mason jar. Fill the jar with alcohol and shake daily for three weeks. Strain out the herb and squeeze through a cheese cloth into dropper bottles. Do not use while pregnant or nursing.
n Create a broom like the “witches” once did and keep a traditional craft alive. Cut the upper portion of the plant, ideally before flowering, and tie or tape it to a straight stick or branch.
n Help establish the Nevada County Scotch Broom Festival. The British Columbia Arts Council formed the Innovative Broom Bash, a community challenge to “find the most innovative ways to use Scotch Broom in arts and crafts or capture its nuances in literary and performing arts.”
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