There are around fifty species of broom that grow in northern and western Asia all over Europe and North Africa. Broom was introduced into North America in the early 1800s as an ornamental plant, but it now grows wild and is classed as an invasive species. Cytisus scoparius is native to Britain and is and has been called by a number of names, including, Scotch Broom, besom, basam, bizzen, browne and Spanish broom is Spartium junceum which is common in Greece and the broom known to Virgil and Pliny and the ancients. Butcher’s broom is a different variety and not discussed here. It is also known by other botanical names such as Sarothamnus scoparius, and Genista scoparius.
It is called broom because it was used to make brooms or sweeping brushes (hence besom, bizzen etc.) Scoparius in Latin means a broom and Sarothamnus is from the Greek which means to sweep and a shrub. The name Cytisus is supposed to be a derivative from the name of a Greek island, Cythnus where Spanish broom flourished.
The Anglo-Saxons used broom for medicinal purposes, and it was known to the physicians of Myddfai in the 9th century, although they favoured Butcher’s broom in their herbal remedies. The Scots used to hang garlands of the flowers around their necks to stem a nosebleed, but it had far more important symbolic value for them and the English and French.
Geoffrey of Anjou put a sprig of flowering bloom in his helmet when he went into battle so that he could be easily seen by his troops, so that it gave them courage to see their leader in the midst of battle. Fulke of Anjou adopted broom as his symbol and his grandson Henry II of England also adopted it as his emblem. The name Plantagenet (as Henry II and his descendents were called) came from the name for broom Genista, Planta meaning plant, and Genista, specifically the broom. Its first official appearance in British history was on the Great Seal of Richard I; Richard Plantagenet.
Another tale about its adoption in Brittany, France, is the following one: a prince of Anjou assassinated his brother and took over his kingdom, but was overcome by remorse and went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to show his repentance. He scourged himself with broom twigs each night to show he had repented of his crime of fratricide and adopted broom as his symbol.
Again in France, St. Louis, on his marriage, founded an order the Colle de Genet or Collar of the Broom and the broom flower and fleur-de-lys were worn on the coats of 100 nobles who were his bodyguards, along with the motto “Extaltat homilies” – he exalts the humble (or lowly).The order was held in high esteem and being allowed to wear the broom flower was regarded as a high honour. Richard II of England was given the broom to wear and a broom plant with an open pod empty of seeds decorates his tomb at Westminster Abbey in London.
The Scots Forbes clan wore bloom flowers in their bonnets when they needed to stimulate courage in their chieftains. During the civil wars of the 14th century, bloom was as much in use as an emblem as the roses of the Houses of York and Lancaster.
Broom was traditionally a symbol of plenty in Britain, and was respected by nobles and peasants alike. The peasants, who made brooms from the twigs of the plant, didn’t do this when the flowers were blooming as there was a superstition that is shown in this rhyme from Suffolk in eastern England,
“If you sweep the house with blossomed broom in May,
You are sure to sweep the head of the house away.”
This might mean that the man of the house would die, or that he would be called upon to go on one of the Crusades to the Holy Land, and perhaps never return.
Another old tale is that the Virgin Mary cursed the broom plant while she and Joseph were fleeing with the baby, Jesus, from Bethlehem to Egypt. The seed pods make a loud cracking noise when the seeds burst out and they did so as the trio past thus alerting Herod’s soldiers.
Broom has been employed for uses other than making brooms, and one of its more valuable attributes is that it has a strong root system which can help prevent soil erosion. It was planted on steep banks to prevent landslides. The twigs and branches were used to weave baskets and it is planted as shelter for game birds, and to protect young, more important species of plant from the ravages of the wind until they become firmly established. When the plants are older their stems are valued by cabinet-makers for use as veneer. In Britain these stems have been used for thatch and as a substitute for reeds to make fences and screens. The bark can be made into fibre, but it is not as good for this use as is Spanish Broom. The fibre is extracted by soaking the bark in water to separate the fibre, as is done with flax. The shoots have been used to make paper and cloth and a green dye can be made from the leaves and young tops of the plant. In past times the tannins extracted from broom were used for tanning in the leather industry. The tops were used in Britain to brew beer before the introduction of hops, and it should be noted that the seeds have narcotic properties, as can be seen from the effects the plant has on sheep and goats after they have eaten them. They are stimulated at first and then sleep, although the effects are short-lived.
Gerard mentions that the flowers were pickled or preserved in salt and then used in salads instead of capers, having been washed thoroughly of the pickling mixture or salt before being boiled and used. Guests at rustic weddings used to carry sprays of broom tied with coloured ribbons if rosemary were not available. The seeds have been used as a coffee substitute too, like dandelion roots.
Henry VIII drank water from the broom flowers as a cure for gout and it was highly recommended in the Renaissance for “stoppages of the liver”. Gerard mentions that the “decoction of the twigs and tops of Broom doth cleanse and open the liver, milt and kidnies.” Culpeper believed that a decoction of the plant was good for dropsy, black jaundice, fevers, gout, sciatica, and various pains of the hips and joints. Some old physicians used to burn the tops and put the ash in wine; this was known as Sal Genista or Salts of Broom.
The seeds have been used to treat liver complaints and fevers and broom juice can be obtained from the fresh bruised tops. Traditionally this is mixed with a thirds or the volume of alcohol and left to steep for 7 days. It has to be strained before using and the tops should be ideally gathered in June for this purpose. Broom juice should not be consumed in large quantities.
A tisane can be made with 1 oz of dried tops to 1 pint of boiling water. Pour the water onto the dried tops and leave to steep for 15 minutes then strain and drink a small glass 3 times a day for liver complaints, or use once in a while as a tisane. It is a diuretic.
For bladder and kidney problems try this mixture: 1 oz broom tops, ½ oz of dandelion roots and boil these in 1 pint of water until the water is reduced by half. About 5 minutes before this is done, add half an oz bruised juniper berries. Cool the liquid and strain it then add ¼ tsp cayenne pepper. Take a small glass 3 or 4 times a day.
The isoflavines in broom are oestrogenic but the problem with broom is that it contains toxic alkaloids one of which is sparteine which may be dangerous to some people with heart problems as it is cardio-active. Broom has been used orally for a variety of complaints mainly to do with the heart and blood circulation. It has also been used to stimulate uterine contractions for women in labour and given after a birth to reduce blood flow. Broom also contains tyramine which can heighten or lower blood pressure. It can be dangerous and should only be taken under medical supervision. Pregnant and lactating women should not use it.
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