Robert Ingram: Scotch Broom, the ugly truth
May 25, 2018
Gold Rush miners spent a considerable amount of time thinking about women, but women were in short supply. So, they deferred to Plan B, booze, lots of booze. European suppliers made plenty available.
To protect the alcohol during the arduous ocean voyage to California, they used the 1800s version of bubble wrap, Scotch Broom (French Broom, Spanish Broom and other species were also used). They wove and stuffed the seed-bearing branches into the beer and whiskey cases to tightly pack the bottles. Once in California, thirsty 49ers tossed the packing material and drank the liquor. Bingo Bango, another disastrous unintended consequence.
So, what do we know, biologically, about introduced species? If an introduced plant or animal becomes established and thrives, that means it can successfully compete with its native competitors. We also know, in the entire history of Man, humans have never successfully manually eradicated a well-entrenched introduced species, never.
Scotch Broom established itself omnipotently throughout California over 160 years ago.
Even new and relatively small infestations are tough to corral. When the Medfly invaded California in the mid-1970s, Gov. Moonbeam, during his first terms as governor, ordered the manual eradication of infected fruit using the California Conservation Corps. Even with our tens of billions of dollars agricultural industry at stake, Brown asserted he would never aerial spray Malathion over pregnant women. The Medfly continued to spread. Finally, science prevailed forcing Gov. Brown to order the state to spray four times the area and four times the number of pregnant woman but stop the pest.
So, what do we know about the plant physiology of Scotch Broom? Scotch Broom spouts so simply cutting it is out. Many seeds remain viable for up to a century, yes, 100 years. Disturbed ground or just more sunlight hitting the ground, triggers seed germination. Pulling Scotch Broom does both releasing patiently waiting seeds. Scotch Broom can bloom in as little as three years. Avoid pulling new individuals for three springs and you turn your manual eradication time clock back to …100 years. Scotch Broom seeds are light but hard coated and float long distances down ditches, creeks and other waterways to colonize new areas. Vehicles and equipment fling seed laden mud into tires and fender wells. Later, the mud and seeds fall off, someplace else.
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Drive up to Banner Mountain from Nevada City on Gracie Road. A Scotch Broom pull occurred there six or seven years ago. The current population of Scotch Broom far exceeds the number present prior to the "eradication effort."
The Union's editorial board recently gave Scotch Broom pulls a thumb's up. One woman wrote once in The Union, "We can eradicate Scotch Broom in our lifetime." Ain'ta guna appen! The biological realities, the plant physiology and our fire-evolved ecosystem all side with Scotch Broom. If you pullers and puller believers take the time to understand the science, you'll understand you're on the losing side of nature.
Fellow private timberland foresters and I sprayed and pulled and pulled and sprayed established Scotch Broom sites for 30 straight years. We reduced but never eliminated the damn plant. We successfully eradicated new sites and in brush fields where we piled, burned and planted new forests, the trees eventually shaded out most the Scotch Broom, though the viable seed remains.
So, just give up? No. Manage Scotch Broom where it's possible. Stop or slow the advance, eliminate new sites, plant hardwoods and conifers to shade out, over time, the sun loving Scotch Broom. Viable seed remains but shade minimizes germination. Our arsenal must include herbicides, but regardless, Scotch Broom will remain a significant component of our ecosystem.
Yes, it can burn hot, but not as volatile as grease wood or as oily hot as bear clover and it puts out far less heat than manzanita, all native California plants. Plus, Scotch Broom belongs to the pea family, so it's a nitrogen fixer for the soil. It flowers early, excellent for honey bees and the bright yellow flowers give off a very fragrant scent, so it's not all evil.
Check out "The Rambunctious Garden," written by environmentalist, Emma Marris. She delivers real-world insight into the complexities of … fixing the planet. She traveled the continents investigating massive and incredibly expensive efforts trying to return to a pre-European man, pre-human or pre-some era world (plus, she visited programs dealing with habitat loss and/or species relocation in a warming climate). She gets it.
Robert G. Ingram lives in Grass Valley.