Sweep the house with blossomed broom in May; sweep the head of the household away…
~ traditional rhyme of Sussex
It’s a familiar sight here at the threshold of June: driving along I-5, watching the bright spots of yellow burst out, a patch here, a dot there, until blam! The entire hillsides radiate sunshine hues. It can be mesmerizing, almost pretty, if you didn’t know better. On my latest drive from Portland to Seattle, the sky was dark and moody, with giant banks of clouds jutting across in thick lines. The darkness reached almost to the horizon, leaving just enough of a gap for the late evening sun to strain through. Burnt gold sunlight lit up massive patches of Scotch Broom against the sky.
There’s a perfectly good explanation as to why these plants seem so otherworldly: they are an invasive species. Not from another planet, exactly, just the United Kingdom. In the 1850‘s, Captain Walter Grant, a Scot and member of the British Army, introduced the plant to Vancouver Island while stationed in British Columbia — just one more nostalgic European in a long line of colonists and immigrants attempting to recreate his homeland in the new world. He’s lucky we can’t blame him for starlings, ’cause there’s a special hell for the people who brought those across the pond.
In Washington, Scotch Broom’s now classified as a Class B Noxious Weed, meaning its seed production is controlled (curtailed) in certain areas of the state, and it is illegal to transport, sell, or distribute the plants or seeds in any part. Too bad we didn’t have this rule in the 1850’s. Walter, I’m looking at you. I would hope your grave is as inundated with Broom as our hillsides are, but you died in India, so.
Anyone who’s made attempts to remove Scotch Broom knows — it’s an absolute bear to try to pull out of the ground, and it spreads out tough, prolific, and interconnected root systems that must be eradicated in their entirety or the plant will just spring right back up again. In late spring, long black seed pods appear, readying themselves for the day when they burst open with a loud crack! and blast their contents far and wide (up to 20 feet!) According to King County Noxious Weed Control Program, a single Scotch Broom plant can live as long as 25 years, producing 10,000 seeds a year. The seeds can then remain viable in the soil for up to 60 years. All of this makes the plant incredibly hard to eradicate, despite monumental efforts.
A single Scotch Broom plant can live as long as 25 years, producing 10,000 seeds a year.
These hardy golden blooms have choked out native undergrowth and proliferated over fields and hillsides, in vacant lots, and anywhere that’s vaguely unused from the Cascades to the sandy hills on the coast. The plants can change the chemical composition of prairie soil, further edging out native grasses and shrubs, and cause great economic strife by taking over grazing fields and range land, as well as hampering timber harvest and reforestation efforts. Some estimates state $100 million per year in economic loss and control efforts spent on Scotch Broom in Oregon and Washington alone.
Occasionally I am surprised to see Scotch Broom in my neighbors’ yards — they must think them quite cheery, I suppose. Apparently the plant is claimed to have medicinal properties such as a treatment for dropsy, as a diuretic, and a cardiac stimulant.
In Welsh mythology, Scotch Broom (along with oak and meadowsweet) was used to create Blodeuwedd, a human, to be the wife of a god and hero, Lleu Llaw Gyffes (don’t you just love Welsh?) after his mother cursed him never to have a wife. However, Blodeuwedd had other ideas. She had an affair with a handsome lord, and together they conspired to murder her husband by trapping him in a net and stabbing him with a spear. In typical mythological fashion, Lleu turned into an eagle when the spear touched him, and flew away in the net. Upon his recovery, he punished Blodeuwedd for her attempted murder by turning her into an owl, hated by the other birds and resigned to regurgitating mouse leftovers for eternity.
All that history and mythology has made its way into the heart of the Pacific Northwest as the ubiquitous Scotch Broom, holding court on the highway hillsides and intertwining itself with the blackberry bushes around the deflated tires and rusted fenders of abandoned Chevy vans from the 1980’s, or that steel tank painted to look like a creepy little Minion waving from I-5. I think the Scots would be proud.
For information on Scotch Broom control efforts:
The Nature Conservancy in Washington and Oregon frequently have Scotch Broom pulling “work parties” during the spring, to which everyone is invited! There are also ivy-pulling parties and invasive grass-removal parties (fun, right?) throughout the spring and summer, so there’s plenty of opportunity to fight the good fight against invasive species in your area!
TNC’s Volunteer Opportunities in Wisconsin (I know lots of people there, it’s not random!)
It’s Invasive Species Action Week in California, June 2-10