Weeds are part (have always been part) of gardening – part of life for that matter. But some weeds are bigger than others – and some are far more pernicious than others. For us in California, and the entire Pacific Northwest, all varieties of broom fit the pernicious category and on several counts: broom are terrible fire hazards in all stages of their life due to their high levels of volatile oils; they are very successful at spreading and choke out native plants in the areas they infest; all portions of the plant are toxic and as a result they offer no food or shelter of any kind to native wildlife. That’s at least three strikes.
Just ask Dulcy Schroeder, one of the founders of and a dedicated volunteer for an organization known as B.E.E.P., or Broom Education and Eradication Program, based out of Forest Ranch. Dulcy is a spry home gardener, lively amateur naturalist and passionate advocate for protecting the native habitats and natural beauty of the place she, her husband and their children call home – a large area of natural land in the Big Chico Creek Canyon.
Big Chico Creek Canyon – a dramatic topographical crease descending down to Big Chico Creek to the west of Forest Ranch – is epic in its beauty and the diversity of plants and trees, wildlife and scenery that abound there. A few weeks back, driving the slow turns of the gravel road down to the bottom of the canyon where Dulcy lives and gardens, I was tempted to stop and take photos every few yards. I could see immediately why the residents of Forest Ranch are so adamant in their protection of the area. Photo: The road down into Big Chico Creek Canyon.
Dulcy and her husband Hans and their two young boys built their home in the canyon about 12 years ago and right away Dulcy started learning the plants, wildlife and ways of the new home she had fallen in love with. “The entire area in and around where we wanted to build our house was covered in star thistle (Centaurea solstitialis), another one of our pernicious weeds, so I started with the eradication of that,” Dulcy told me, and after 12 years of hand picking and weed-eating and carefully disposing of or burning the cuttings, star thistle is more or less under control on her property. (If you can ever say that about an invasive plant.) However, the more hiking around and learning of the land she did, the more she witnessed the extent of the broom problem as well. “Especially along the creek – stands and stands of the broom lined and choked and clogged the creek sides smothering out the riparian (creek corridor) plants and animals that should have been at home there,” Dulcy described. Photo: View across Dulcy’s mostly-native and all drought tolerant from garden overlooking the canyon floor – no longer covered with invasive star thistle.
“Sadly – they can be darn good-looking plants. Really pretty – and tough!” Dulcy acknowledged as we took a wildflower walk around her land. “But so are a lot of other plants that don’t decimate our native environment.”
French broom (Genista monspessulana) and Spanish broom (Spartia junceum) and Scotch Broom (Cytisus scoparius) are all variously known as broom and all are known invasives (and fire hazards) in almost all parts of California. The California Invasive Plant Council (Cal-IPC) puts at least 23 California counties suffering the environmental and economic consequences of trying to control broom infestations. All of these broom species are legumes, members of the pea family and originally native to Europe. The develop amazing tap roots, which make them both very successful in drought climates as well as very difficult to completely pull once they are established. Like most peas, they form a dizzying number of pods filled with very hard coated seeds that sources say can remain viable for between 20 and 80 years. According to BEEP literature, they were first introduced to California as garden ornamentals in the 1850s and eventually used by the government along roadways for erosion control. Photo: The many, many seed pods of a maturing broom plant.
Without any of the natural controls of their home territories in Europe, the brooms have nothing to hold them back. Even fire seems to give them a leg-up as the seeds are able to germinate more quickly and effectively than native seeds and ultimately broom seedlings shade out other plants trying to regenerate.
According to Cal-IPC, broom was first reported as an invasive problem on Catalina Island in 1967. Currently, Cal-IPC writes: “Broom species have been identified as the second most problematic weed by Weed Management Area managers. They block light and use up water, resulting in many native species becoming locally extinct. It reduces forage and creates stands which are inaccessible and unpalatable to wildlife. Brooms can produce up to 12,000 seeds per plant – making it difficult to control once established. They form dense stands that cover 100% and eliminate native habitats. Brooms can invade even intact native ecosystems – and regrow after fire and grazing are used to control them.”
In her indomitable way, Dulcy got to work on her property, but she realized that as long as the plants continued to set seed upstream and uphill from her, she was doomed. In 2006, she and a knowledgeable group of other plant lovers and gardeners from Forest Ranch got together to see what they could do to address the issue. And BEEP was formed. Dulcy and Marty Leicester, a well-known Master Gardener began by submitting educational “public awareness” articles each month to the Forest Ranch Post, figuring that the more people they got pulling broom or destroying seed on their own properties, the better for the whole watershed. Photo: Dulcy Schroeder proudly guiding a wildflower walk near her home in the Big Chico Creek Canyon.
The group also created their glossy brochure with information on why and how to begin controlling the broom plant populations, prepared and presented school programs in k-8 classrooms in Forest Ranch and Chico. Ultimately, Dulcy told me, BEEP hopes to create and be a template for other communities dealing with the fallout from invasive plant problems: from educating residents and gardeners to educating both small independent nurseries and big box stores, to partnering with governmental and resource council-type organizations.
It was with some resignation that Dulcy admitted “we will probably never fully get rid of broom as a problem. But we can certainly make a big dent and keep it under some sort of control.” From the beginning, the people who formed BEEP have been aided and encouraged by physical help, advise, tools and funds from many other agencies, including: Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, the Big Chico Creek Watershed Alliance, the Butte County (Environmental Council) Resource Conservation District, the Butte County Fire Safe Council, Cal Fire, Cal Trans, Butte County Roads, Cal State Parks, Friends of Bidwell Park, City of Chico Parks Division, (CSUC Students), Sierra Pacific Industries, California Native Plant Society’s Mt. Lassen Chapter and the California Conservation Corps.
When it comes to control of broom plants, BEEP and their many inter-agency partners recommend the following:
“Removal: Removal of the entire broom plant is the ultimate goal. Hand-pulling is the successful for smaller plants and seedlings when the soil is moist during the rainy season. A Weed Wrench ™ is a good tool for removing larger plants. Sometimes the plants are so large that they require a winch or must be dug out below the crown. It is important to get as much of the root system as possible to prevent re-sprouting.’ Photo: Established broom plants in bloom all along a dry creek bed in Chico in May.
“Seeds: Seeds must not be allowed to mature. If unable to remove the entire plant right away, cut the flowers off before they form seeds. Be sure to leave at least a foot of stem above the ground so it can be gripped for removal during the next rainy season. The key to long term broom control is the prevention of seed maturation.’
“Seedlings: Seedlings will appear after the winter rains. These can be pulled by hand. Since broom seed banks are long-lived, plan on being vigilant for several years. Careful and thoughtful spot spraying with glyphosate (ie: Roundup) is a chemical option.
“Re-Vegetation: Replanting with fire resistant plants will make it difficult for the broom seed bank to germinate and grow.” BEEP recommends natives alternatives including many varieties of Ceanothus, redbud (Cercis occidentalis), and flannel bush (Fremontodendron californicum). Photo: The bright yellow flowers of the California native flannel bush.
I have seen many broom plants that I found lovely – and some good looking hybrids with red, orange, and variegated blooms. And broom (many marked as ‘sterile’ hybrids) are still widely available in nurseries small and large. The Sunset Western Garden Book describes the Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparious) as the “aggressive European species that has given all brooms a bad name.”
Dulcy shakes her head over broom’s continued availability. “My first recommendation for home gardeners is Don’t Buy It – not even if it says it’s sterile. A very dedicated home gardener in Forest Ranch has performed multi-year observation based experiments in her garden and has seen even the so-called sterile varieties produce viable seed after a few years.”
Even if you can’t find a specific broom plant’s name on the California Invasive Plant Council’s interactive inventory, Jen Stern at Cal-IPC told me, don’t feel safe. She emphasized that “every plant goes through careful evaluation before being listed as invasive,” so it can take a while for all plants that should be there to get there. “It would be safe to say that Cal-IPC would strongly advise against planting any of these plants due to potential risk,” she said by phone.
From their beginnings in 2006 until the end of the winter pulling season 2010, BEEP has pulled an estimated 200,000 broom plants. Each year BEEP holds fundraisers such as hand-made quilt raffles and cook book sales, they write grants and as awareness grows they find additional partners in the fight against broom. Each winter season, the group holds regular pull days throughout the region – and they can always use additional volunteers – of the human rather than plant variety.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED: Report broom infestations to BEEP or one of their partner organizations, or get help learning how to effectively remove broom yourself.
You can reach BEEP by phone at: 530-892-8726.
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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.