BroomBotanical Name: Cytisus scoparius (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Leguminosae
Synonyms: Spartium scoparium (Linn.). Genista scoparius (Lam.). Sarothamnus scoparius (Koch). Broom Tops. Irish Tops. Basam. Bisom. Bizzom. Browme. Brum. Breeam. Green Broom.
Part Used: Tops.
Habitat: The densely-growing Broom, a shrub indigenous to England and common in this country, grows wild all over temperate Europe and northern Asia, being found in abundance on sandy pastures and heaths. It is sparingly naturalized in sandy soil in North America.
It is remarkable as the only native medicinal plant used as an official drug that we draw from the important order of the Leguminosae, or pod-bearing tribe. Though now more generally known as Cytisus scoparius (Linn.), it has also been named Spartium scoparium (Linn.), Sarothamnus scoparius (Koch), and Genista scoparius (Lam.).
Its long, slender, erect and tough branches grow in large, close fascicles, thus rendering it available for broom-making, hence its English name. The local names of Basam, Bisom, Bizzom, Breeam, Browme, Brum and Green Broom have all been given it in reference to the habit of making brooms of it, and the name of the genus, Sarothamnus, to which it was formerly assigned, also points out this use of the plant, being formed from the Greek words signifying 'to sweep' and 'a shrub.' The specific name, Scoparius, also, is derived from the Latin scopa, a besom. The generic name Cytisus is said to be a corruption of the name of a Greek island, Cythnus, where Broom abounded, though it is probable that the Broom known to the ancients, and mentioned by Pliny and by Virgil under the name of Genista, was another species, the Spanish Broom, Spartium junceum, as the Common Broom is in Greece and not found in Southern and Eastern Europe, being chiefly a native of Western, Northern and Central Europe.
The medicinal use of the brush-like branches of the Broom, under the name Genista, Genesta, or Genestia, is mentioned in the earliest printed herbals, under Passau, 1485, the Hortus Sanitatis, 1491, the Grete Herball, 1516, and others. It is likewise the Genista figured by the German botanists and pharmacologists of the sixteenth century.
Broom was used in ancient Anglo-Saxon medicine and by the Welsh physicians of the early Middle Ages. It had a place in the London Pharmacopceia of 1618 and is included in the British Pharmacopoeia of the present day. Bartholomew says of Broom: 'Genesta hath that name of bytterness for it is full of bytter to mannes taste. And is a shrub that growyth in a place that is forsaken, stony and untylthed. Presence thereof is witnesse that the ground is bareyne and drye that it groweth in. And hath many braunches knotty and hard. Grene in winter and yelowe floures in somer thyche (the which) wrapped with hevy (heavy) smell and bitter sauer (savour). And ben, netheles, moost of vertue.'
Description: It grows to a height of 3 to 5 feet and produces numerous long, straight, slender bright green branches, tough and very flexible, smooth and prominently angled. The leaves are alternate, hairy when young the lower ones shortly stalked, with three small, oblong leaflets, the upper ones, near the tips of the branches, sessile and small, often reduced to a single leaflet. Professor G. Henslow (Floral Rambles in Highways and Byways) says with reference to the 'leaves' of the broom: 'It has generally no leaves, the green stems undertaking their duties instead. If it grows in wet places, it can develop threefoliate leaves.' The large bright yellow, papilionaceous, fragrant flowers, in bloom from April to July, are borne on axillary footstalks, either solitary or in pairs, and are succeeded by oblong, flattened pods, about 1 1/2 inch long, hairy on the edges, but smooth on the sides. They are nearly black when mature. They burst with a sharp report when the seeds are ripe flinging them to a distance by the spring-iike twisting of the valves or sides of the pods. The continuous crackling of the bursting seed-vessels on a hot, sunny July day is readily noticeable. The flowers have a great attraction for bees, they contain no honey, but abundance of pollen.
'In flowers without honey, such as the Broom, there is a curious way of "exploding" to expel the pollen. In the Broom the stigma lies in the midst of the five anthers of the longer stamens, and when a bee visits the flower those of the shorter explode and disperse their pollen on the bee pressing upon the closed edges of the keel petal. "The shock is not enough to drive the bee away . . . The split now quickly extends further . . . when a second and more violent explosion occurs." The style was horizontal with a flattened end below the stigma; but when freed from restraint it curls inwards, forming more than a complete spiral turn. It springs up and strikes the back of the bee with its stigma. The bee then gathers pollen with its mouth and legs.' (From The Fertilization of Flowers, by Professor H. Mueller, pp. 195-6)
History: As a heraldic device, the Broom was adopted at a very early period as the badge of Brittany. Geoffrey of Anjou thrust it into his helmet at the moment of going into battle, that his troops might see and follow him. As he plucked it from a steep bank which its roots had knit together he is reputed to have said: 'This golden plant, rooted firmly amid rock, yet upholding what is ready to fall, shall be my cognizance. I will maintain it on the field, in the tourney and in the court of justice.' Fulke of Anjou bore it as his personal cognizance, and Henry II of England, his grandson, as a claimant of that province, also adopted it, its mediaeval name Planta genista, giving the family name of Plantagenets to his line. It may be seen on the Great Seal of Richard I, this being its first official, heraldic appearance in England. Another origin is claimed for the heraldic use of the Broom in Brittany. A prince of Anjou assassinated his brother there and seized his kingdom, but being overcome by remorse, he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in expiation of his crime. Every night on the journey, he scourged himself with a brush of 'genets,' or genista, and adopted this plant as his badge, in perpetual memory of his repentance. St. Louis of France continued the use of this token, founding a special order on the occasion of his marriage in the year 1234. The Colle de Genet, the collar of the order, was composed alternately of the fleur-de-lys of France and the Broomflower, the Broomflower being worn on the coat of his bodyguard of a hundred nobles, with the motto, 'Exaltat humiles,' 'He exalteth the lowly.' The order was held in great esteem and its bestowal regarded as a high honour. Our Richard II received it, and a Broom plant, with open, empty pods, can be seen ornamenting his tomb in Westminster Abbey. In 1368 Charles V of France bestowed the insignia of the Broom pod on his favourite chamberlain, and in 1389 Charles VI gave the same decoration to his kinsmen.
The Broom is the badge of the Forbes. Thus, according to Sandford, it was the bonny broom which the Scottish clan of Forbes wore in their bonnets when they wished to arouse the heroism of their chieftains, and which in their Gaelic dialect they called bealadh, in token of its beauty.
'This humble shrub,' writes Baines, 'was not less distinguished than the Rose herself during the civil wars of the fourteenth century.'
Apart from its use in heraldry, the Broom has been associated with several popular traditions. In some parts, it used to be considered a sign of plenty, when it bore many flowers. The flowering tops were used for house decoration at the Whitsuntide festival but it was considered unlucky to employ them for menial purposes when in full bloom. An old Suffolk tradition runs: 'If you sweep the house with blossomed Broom in May You are sure to sweep the head of the house away.' And a yet older tradition is extant that when Joseph and Mary were fleeing into Egypt, the plants of the Broom were cursed by the Virgin because the crackling of their ripe pods as they touched them in passing risked drawing the attention of the soldiers of Herod to the fugitives.
The Broom has been put to many uses. When planted on the sides of steep banks, its roots serve to hold the earth together. On some parts of our coast, it is one of the first plants that grow on the sand-dunes after they have been somewhat consolidated on the surface by the interlacing stems of the mat grasses and other sand-binding plants. It will flourish within reach of sea spray, and, like gorse, is a good sheltering plant for sea-side growth.
Broom is grown extensively as a shelter for game, and also in fresh plantations among more important species of shrubs, to protect them from the wind till fully established.
The shrub seldom grows large enough to furnish useful wood, but when its stem acquires sufficient size, it is beautifully veined, and being very hard, furnishes the cabinetmaker with most valuable material for veneering.
The twigs and branches are serviceable not only for making brooms, but are also used for basket-work, especially in the island of Madeira. They are sometimes used in the north of England and Scotland for thatching cottages and cornricks, and as substitutes for reeds in making fences or screens.
The bark of the Common Broom yields an excellent fibre, finer but not so strong as that of the Spanish Broom, which has been employed from very ancient times- it is easily separated by macerating the twigs in water like flax. From the large quantity of fibrous matter contained, the shoots have been used in the manufacture of paper and cloth.
Tannin exists in considerable amount in the bark, which has been used in former times for tanning leather.
Before the introduction of Hops, the tender Freen tops were often used to communicate a bitter flavour to beer, and to render it more intoxicating. Gerard says of the Broom: 'The common Broom groweth almost everywhere in dry pastures and low woods. It flowers at the end of April or May, and then the young buds of the flowers are to be gathered and laid in pickle or salt, which afterwards being washed or boiled are used for sallads as capers be and be eaten with no less delight.' Broom buds were evidently a favourite delicacy, for they appeared on three separate tables at the Coronation feast of James II. The flowers served the double purpose of an appetizer and a corrective.
Sometimes a bunch of green Broom tied up with coloured ribbons was carried by the guests at rustic weddings instead of rosemary, when that favourite aromatic herb proved scarce.
Withering (Arrangement of Plants) stated that the green tops were a good winter food for sheep, preventing rot and dropsy in them.
The blossoms were used for making an unguent to cure the gout, and Henry VIII used to drink a water made from the flowers against the surfeit.
Dodoens (Herbal, 1606) recommended a decoction of the tops in dropsy and for 'stoppages of the liver.'
Gerard tells us: 'The decoction of the twigs and tops of Broom doth cleanse and open the liver, milt and kidnies.'
Culpepper considered the decoction of Broom to be good not only for dropsy, but also for black jaundice, ague, gout, sciatica and various pains of the hips and joints.
Some of the old physicians burned the tops to ashes and infused the salts thus extracted in wine. They were known as Salts of Broom (Sal Genistae).
The powdered seeds are likewise administered and sometimes a tincture is employed. Bruised Broom seeds were formerly used infused in rectified spirit, allowed to stand two weeks and then strained. A tablespoonful in a glass of peppermint water was taken daily for liver complaints and ague.
The leaves or young tops yield a green dye.
The seeds have similar properties to the tops, and have also been employed medicinally, though they are not any longer used officially. They have served as a substitute for coffee.
Cultivation: Broom is most easily raised from seed, sown broadcast in the open air, as soon as ripe. Seedlings may be transplanted in autumn or spring to their permanent position. Prune directly after flowering, if the shoots have not been gathered for medicinal use, shortening the old shoots to the base of promising young ones.
As their roots strike down deeply into the ground, the plants can be grown in dry, sandy soil, where others will not grow. They do well on rough banks.
Broom may also be increased by layers. Choice garden varieties are generally increased by cuttings inserted in cold frames in September.
Constituents: Broom contains two principles on which its activity depends. Sparteine, discovered in 1851 by Stenhouse, of which about 0.03 per cent is present, is a transparent, oily liquid, colourless when fresh, turning brown on exposure, of an aniline-like odour and a very bitter taste. It is but slightly soluble in water, but readily soluble in alcohol and ether. Stenhouse stated that the amount of Sparteine in Broom depends much upon external conditions, that grown in the shade yielding less than that produced in sunny places.
Scoparin, the other principal constituent, is a glucoside, occurring in pale-yellow crystals, colourless and tasteless, soluble in alcohol and hot water. It represents most of the direct diuretic activity of Broom.
Volatile oil, tannin, fat, wax, sugar, etc., are also present. Broom contains a very large quantity of alkaline and earthy matter, on incineration yielding about 3 per cent of ash, containing 29 per cent of carbonate of potash.
Sparteine forms certain salts of which the sulphate (official in the British and the United States Pharmacopceias) is most used in medicine. It occurs in colourless crystals, readily soluble in water.
Oxysparteine (formed by the action of acid on Sparteine) is used as a cardiac stimulant.
The flowers contain volatile oil fatty matter, wax, chlorophyll, yellow colouring matter, tannin, a sweet substance, mucilage, albumen and lignin. Scoparin and the alkaloid sparteine have been separated from them.
Part Used Medicinally: The young, herbaceous tips of the flowering branches are collected in early spring, generally in May, as they contain most alkaloid at the close of the winter. They are used officially both in the fresh and dried state.
Broom Juice (Succus Scoparii) is directed to be obtained by pressing out the bruised, fresh tops, adding one-third volume of alcohol and setting aside for seven days, filtering before use.
For the expression of the juice the fresh tops may be gathered in June. Broom Juice is official in the British, French, German and United States Pharmacopoeias.
Infusion of Broom (Infusum Scoparii) is made by infusing the dried tops with boiling water for fifteen minutes and then straining. It was introduced in the British Pharmacopoeia of 1898, in place of the decoction of Broom of the preceding issues.
The Fluid Extract of Broom of the United States Pharmacopceia is prepared from the powdered dried tops.
The drug, as it appears in commerce, consists of very long, much-branched, tough and flexible twigs, which lie parallel with and close to one another and are about 1/25 to 1/12 inch thick, narrowly five-winged, with alternating, slight nodes, dark-green and usually naked; internally, greenish-white.
When fresh, the whole plant has a strong and peculiar odour, especially when bruised, which almost entirely disappears on drying.
The tops are dark green when fresh and dark brownish-green when dried.
The quality of the drug deteriorates with keeping, and this condition can be determined by the partial or complete loss of the slight, peculiar odour of the recently dried drug.
The deep yellow flowers, dried, are considerably employed separately, under the name Flores Genistae, or Flores Scoparii.
Broom Seeds are used sometimes and are as active as the tops. Water and alcohol extract their active properties.
Medicinal Action and Uses: Diuretic and cathartic. Broom tops are used in the form of decoction and infusion, often with squill and ammonium and potassium acetate, as a feeble diuretic, generally in dropsical complaints of cardiac origin. The action is due to the Scoparin contained, whose action on the renal mucous membrane is similar to that of Buchu and Uva-Ursi.
The infusion is made from 1 OZ. of the dried tops to a pint of boiling water, taken in wineglassful doses frequently. When acute renal inflammation is present, it should not be given.
Broom Juice, in large doses, is apt to disturb the stomach and bowels and is therefore more often used as an adjuvant to other diuretics than alone.
A compound decoction of Broom is recommended in herbal medicine as of much benefit in bladder and kidney affections, as well as in chronic dropsy. To make this, 1 OZ. Broomtops and 1/2 oz. of Dandelion Roots are boiled in one pint of water down to half a pint, adding towards the last, 1/2 oz. of bruised Juniper berries. When cold, the decoction is strained and a small quantity of cayenne added. A wineglassful is taken three or four times a day.
The statements of different investigators, both clinical and pharmacological, concerning the effects of the Sparteine in preparations of Broom, have elicited absolutely opposing views on the effect upon the nerves and circulatory system. It is found to produce a transient rise in arterial pressure, followed by a longer period of decreased vascular tension. Small doses slow the heart for a short period of time and then hasten its rate and at the same time increase the volume of the pulse. Those who advocate its employment claim that it is a useful heart tonic and regulator in chronic valvular disease. It has no cumulative action, like Digitalis.
In large doses, Sparteine causes vomiting and purging weakens the heart, depresses the nerve cells and lowers the blood pressure and has a strong resemblance to the action of Conine (Hemlock) on the heart. In extreme cases, death is caused by impairing the activity of the respiratory organs. Shepherds have long been aware of the narcotic properties of Broom, due to Sparteine, having noticed that sheep after eating it become at first excited and then stupefied, but the intoxicating effects soon pass off.
Preparations: Fluid extract, 1/2 to 1 drachm. Juice, B.P., 1 to 2 drachms. Infusion, B.P., 1 to 2 oz.
Substitutes: It is essential that true Broom be carefully distinguished from Spanish Broom (Spartium junceum), since a number of cases of poisoning have occurred from the substitution of the dried flowers of Spartium for those of the true Broom.