THE BOTANY OF BESOMS

I believe we and our relatives have been tying up brooms for hundreds of thousands of years.  We have lived in camps, caves, and lodges, and in every one of those settings brooms were likely used for all kinds of reasons. I can see our ancestors sweeping embers back into fires, sweeping out annoying insects such as fleas, satisfying their compulsion to sweep away meddling spirits from their homes, and before or even during a ritual. The Lenni Lenape used turkey plumes to sweep out the dust between rounds during their Longhouse or Big House ceremonies. Around the globe tools for sweeping are serious business.

Today we know only bits and pieces of what had to have been a genuine science for hunter-gatherers and their medicine people.  Even today there exists a respectable number of plant species still in use as bristles, binding, and handles for brooms. Most of the contemporary uses seem practical on the surface. But of course, there is no way of knowing what might be guarded in the heart of the user. He or she may well be a full-fledged practitioner. Nevertheless, we’ll take a look at those plants along with the applications.

First, let’s clarify that a besom is, in the end, just a broom. But note that various Neo-Practitioners prefer to use the word “besom” with regard to ritual brooms. They are the brooms where the bristles are bound to a stave and the finished product is round rather than flat, like the typical household broom of today. The round besom might seem special now but it is merely the way by which brooms were tied up for countless millennia. Nevertheless, the broom’s common inclusion in European folk tales and songs strongly supports its continued importance in cultures and lives.

The word “besom” comes from the Old English “besma” which means bundle of twigs or something bound or twisted. Closely related words can be found all over Europe such as: “besmon” from the West Germanic, the Old Frisian “besma”, “besmo” from the Old Saxon and Old High German, the German “besan”, and the Dutch “bezem”. Among Wiccans, from what I understand, birch (Betula) twigs are bound to a Hawthorn (Crataegus) stave with Willow (Salix). Of course, there is much chatter about the phallic implications of besoms all wound up with poisonous ointments that make it possible for one to fly. While I don’t doubt it in the least that is a long way from the intent of today’s essay.

As mentioned before there are numerous types of brooms and plants used for brooms. Shrubby brooms, used to clean streets, yards, barnyards, and threshing yards are often made from Birch (Betula) or Heather (Calluna). Soft brooms used for the house, threshing floor, cellar, kitchen, oven, fireplace, and so forth are most often made from Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua), Black Horehound (Ballota nigra),  Asparagus (Asparagus), and Asphodelus. Butcher’s Broom (Ruscus aculeatus) is used to clean chimneys. In Italy there are 28 species of plants used to clean ovens and stoves, with a specific mention of Mallow (Malva sylvestris) being used to clean bread ovens. Some of the same species can be found in the UK such as: Celery (Apium), Fennel, (Foeniculum), Horehound (Marrubium), and Black Horehound (Ballota nigra). More commonly we find brooms tied up with Heather (Calluna), Heath (Erica) and Scot’s Broom (Cytisus scoparius).  Other species used for handles include Hazelnut (Corylus), Ash (Fraxinus), and Birch (Betula).

The stories that I found are indeed interesting. Numerous species of Centaurea used for brooms must be collected around Summer Solstice. The harvested plants are then made into a broom, before being left behind the door or next to the fireplace to guard the house until the following year. The guardianship includes protecting the family from illness or accident, and repelling meddling spirits. Come spring, the broom must be burned, and the process begins again. It is believed that a small child left alone in a room will be kept safe if a broom is placed next to her side (I don’t recommend trying this). In some parts of Europe, each spring brooms are ritually stolen. The angrier the owner becomes the better the rain will be, later in the season.  Conversely, in other regions, a broom will be dressed as an effigy and is used in a ritual to stop too much rain. It is believed by some that when a broom is placed by a door the entire family will be safe because any approaching malevolent spirit will be preoccupied with counting the stems.

Here is a list of plants indigenous to the UK known to be used as the bristles for brooms. Be aware that Continental Europe is known to have numerous if not many others:

Alnus (Alder)
Artemisia (Wormwood, Mugwort)
Betula (Birch)
Calluna (Heather)
Carduus sp. (Thistle)
Carpinus (Hornbeam)
Centaurea (Cornflower, Knapweed, Red Star Thistle, etc.)
Cirsium sp. (Thistle)
Cornus (Dogwood)
Apium (Celery)
Arum (Cuckoo Pint)
Asparagus
Asphodelus
Ballota (Black Horehound)
Chrysanthemum
Prunus (Cherry, Blackthorn)
Salix (Willow)
Stachys (Woundwort)
Ruscus (Butcher’s Broom)
Thymus (Thyme)
Cytisus (Scot’s Broom)
Erica (Heath)
Genista (Dyer’s Broom)
Sambucus (Elder)
Pteridium (Bracken Fern)
Verbascum (Mullein)

Of course, most of you know I could never leave it at that. Why couldn’t the stems, branches, or limbs from any tree be used to make a broom? Couldn’t any of the more than 400 species of plants in The Compendium for Spirit Handling be applied in some way? Even if a plant isn’t suitable for sweeping, couldn’t it be tucked into the bundle of bristles or tied to the handle? In the context of shamanism or spirit handling there are virtually limitless possibilities. Couldn’t animal medicine be incorporated with the use of sinew as binding or other components deemed necessary?  There is no doubt in my mind that it would have been included. So, let’s consider what is possible.  For example, why couldn’t we bind yarrow stems (Achillea) to a birch (Betula) handle with honeysuckle (Lonicera)? All three are related to new lives and spiritual paths. Couldn’t bracken fern (Pteridium) be tied to rowan (Sorbus)? Both afford protection. I think you see my point.

If Broom Medicine appeals to you I would suggest that you consult The Compendium for Spirit Handling, another blog right here on this website. It is a formidable work that can lead you through combining most anything for any purpose. I highly recommend that you read all of the entries found in the horizontal menu of the Compendium’s table of contents page before moving on to the plants. Note that the entries are alphabetized by their Latin names, found in parenthesis next to the common names, which, by default, are not alphabetized. I highly recommend that you learn the Latin names. There are resources on this website to help you with that. Common names are for the most part pointless and can even lead to some amount of danger. In this day and age, practitioners need to know botanical Latin.

Here are a few good references:

How to Make a Broom

http://www.motherearthnews.com

The Witch’s Broom

http://www.hearthmoonblog.com

Online Etymology Dictionary

http://etymonline.com

Besom

https://en.wikipedia.org

Plants Traditionally Used to Make Brooms in Several European Countries

http://link.springer.com




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Responses to “THE BOTANY OF BESOMS”

  1. Excellent Thank you Verda!

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