Broom is a typical plant of our Mediterranean scrubland, with an ancient popular tradition. It has been used since ancient times as a fiber plant. Ancient peoples such as Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and Romans used it for making mats, ropes, and various artifacts. The term “broom” derives from the Greek spartos = rope, confirming its use of fiber for crafting coarse fabrics. In more recent times, the period of greatest attention towards broom dates back to the Second World War when there was a scarcity of alternative fiber plants.
Let’s better understand this plant and its characteristics. Then, let’s take a leap into the past to understand how it was used by our farming ancestors.
Identifying the Broom Plant
Broom belongs to the large botanical family of Leguminosae. This family includes plants like green beans, fava beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts etc. However, unlike these, broom’s fruits are not edible; in fact, all parts of the plant are toxic to humans if ingested. A common characteristic among legumes, also known as Papilionaceae (from the Latin papilionis = butterfly), is having a flower structure resembling an open-winged butterfly. There are several different species of broom; in our country, there are about 20 wild species.
The most well-known and interesting from a botanical standpoint are:
- Spanish broom or fragrant broom, Spartium junceum
- Scotch broom or common broom, Cytisus scoparium
These two species are quite similar and can both be used to obtain technical-textile fibers. However, Spartium junceum is the more commonly used variety, being highly resistant and capable of providing better-quality fibers.
Botanical Characteristics of Broom
Fragrant broom is a shrub-like plant, ranging in height from 70 cm to 3 m. The tallest height is achieved in the tree-like form, with a rounded shape. In the southern regions where it is more widespread, namely Basilicata, Calabria, and the Islands, broom can assume a gigantic, tree-like development. The stem is woody, cylindrical in shape, with many branches. It is very twisted, light brown in color, with evident longitudinal fissures of a darker shade. The branches formed in the first year are called “vermene,” and it is from these that the fiber is extracted. They are rush-like, intense green, compressible yet very tenacious. Their section is rounded, and they are ascending and scattered on the stem. Older branches are not suitable for fiber production because, over the years, they change color (from intense green to yellow-brown) and structure (becoming woody).
Leaves, Flowers, and Fruits of Broom
Broom leaves are simple and deciduous, spaced and sparse. The surface is smooth, intense green on the upper side and equipped with trichomes on the lower side. They are obovate-oblong in shape, with a whole and linear margin. Broom flowers, on the other hand, are hermaphroditic, grouped in axillary racemes placed at the ends of the vermene. They are large, with a corolla of the typical golden-yellow color. Pollination is entomophilous, carried out by bees and other pollinating insects. Broom is indeed a honey-bearing plant, producing excellent monofloral honey. The fruit is a small legume, flattened and elongated, black or dark brown in color. Each legume produces from 10 to 18 oval-shaped seeds of brownish-red color. Vegetative activity begins with budding in March. Intense growth follows between April and June. In colder areas, vegetative growth shifts by about a month. As everyone can observe, flowering occurs from May to July, while seed ripening happens in late summer.
Habitat and Environmental Needs
The broom plant is typical of the Mediterranean scrubland, especially in temperate-warm zones. In regions like Calabria and Sicily, fragrant broom can reach high altitudes. It withstands strong winds, although its growth slows down and the plant becomes more compact in their presence. It grows well along the coasts and can withstand salty winds. Wild broomlands can be extensive and dense, especially in the central-southern Apennines. It’s a plant that, after colonizing and improving bare or degraded soils, makes way for other species that otherwise wouldn’t develop on their own. It serves an important purpose in forestry. It grows well in various types of soil, even the most challenging ones. It thrives in soils from eruptive rocks, acidic or calcareous soils, sandstones, and siliceous soils.
Due to its high hardiness, cultivating broom in your field is straightforward. It can find space on steep terrains to consolidate them. It can also be useful on field edges to attract pollinating insects or in a garden for ornamental purposes.
It doesn’t have specific water requirements and doesn’t need any special care. The best way to propagate broom is through seeds. These should be collected at the end of summer, when they are not too mature and hard. The seeds can be sown in autumn, digging small holes. They have excellent germination capability and initial establishment. Plant growth will start in the following spring.
History of Broom Use
Let’s now explore how broom was used in the artisanal tradition of our Southern regions. The Mediterranean countries where the tradition of broom is deeply rooted are Albania, Greece, the south of Spain, and Italy.
In Italy today, the significance of this plant for textile use is limited to small rural communities. Specifically, we’re talking about places in Basilicata, such as San Paolo Albanese, San Costantino Albanese, and Ginestra, and in Calabria, like Vaccarizzo Albanese and Falconara Albanese. All these towns have Albanian origins and are part of the Arbëreshë communities present in Italy. When these peoples settled in Italy, they already knew how to work with raw yarns derived from broom. This plant also grew wild in their homeland. According to historical accounts, soldiers of the Albanian leader Castriota Scanderberg, in the war against the Turks, carried rifles strapped in broom fiber bandoliers.
Processing Broom in the Arbëreshë Communities
It’s fascinating to understand how broom processing occurred in the Arbëreshë community. Operations began in March with pruning the plant to obtain new tender shoots. This was the only phase of work entrusted to men.
Harvesting, Boiling, and Unraveling
The actual harvesting took place in August, using a scythe. Broom bundles were carried to the village on shoulders or on a donkey’s back, where they were boiled in a specific pot called a kusia, collected in bundles and then boiled. These bundles needed to be turned several times, as prolonged boiling caused inconveniences. After boiling (ziemi sparten), they were allowed to cool before starting to unravel them. The unraveled broom was gathered into additional bundles (strumbilje), which, in groups of five, were placed on branches of the same plant and transferred to watercourses. They were immersed for eight to ten days. Immersion completed the maturation process. Subsequently, the bundles were exposed to the sun. This, besides allowing the fibers to whiten, created a rough thread that was beaten with a specific wooden stick (kupani).
Combing and Spinning
The beating gave the fiber a softer appearance and consistency, preparing it for combing (krekurit). This was done with rudimentary combs to clean the fiber of any wood residues, making it ready for spinning. The final operation involved placing a certain quantity of fiber on a distaff, from which a thread was spun with the right hand while elongated with the left hand.
The Thread and Fiber
The thread, elongated and thinned, was fixed to the spindle. It was twisted with the right hand while the left hand continued to supply the necessary fiber for the operation. The resulting thread was collected into skeins, bleached in water and ashes, and in some cases, dyed. The naturally colored thread was used for weaving sheets, towels, tablecloths, and intimate garments.
The fiber obtained was used to make clothes, blankets, and bags. It could be colored with vegetable substances, extracted through different methods and thus applied. Broom flowers themselves were used for yellow dye. For brown color, walnut husks were used for the decoction. Red was extracted from madder roots. The processing of broom thus represented a true textile craftsmanship. Fortunately, in some places, these ancient traditions are still maintained today.