Name: Broom (Spartium scoparium)
Also known as: Basam, Besum
Habitat: A perennial shrub member of the Leguminosae family, growing to about 3m in dry, stony ground in European and Mediterranean countries. It has erect, green, angled stems bearing small, alternate leaves which produce bright yellow, honey-scented flowers from the axils. The seeds are classically leguminous bean pods that twist open when ripe. All parts of the plant are poisonous.
What does it do: The plant contains the alkaloid Sparteine that causes vomiting, purging, depresses the nervous system, lowers the blood pressure and in extreme cases will impair the respiratory organs leading to death. But the plant was known to the ancients, and Pliny refers to it as a cure for dropsy. Gerard writes: ‘The decoction of the top twigs of Broom doth cleanse and open the liver, milt (spleen), and kidnies’. Culpeper considered the plant to be good not only for dropsy, but also for black jaundice, ague, gout, sciatica and various pains of the hips and joints. William Withering in his book The arrangement of plants, states ‘that the green tops were a good winter feed for sheep, and will prevent the rot’.
Broom was adopted as a heraldic device by Geoffrey of Anjou, who plucked the stem from a rocky bank and wore it in his helmet as his cognizance for the troops. Henry II of England also adopted it as his device, and its mediaeval name, Planta Genista, gave rise to the Plantagenet line of monarchs; it may still be seen on the Great Seal of Richard I.
For centuries the plant has provided the material for household brooms and brushes and is used in the tanning industry to strengthen hides.
In Cyprus we have a sister plant, Spartium junceum, which has been used in the villages to treat liver disorders and nephritis. Shepherds considered the plant effective in combating snake bites. The flowers produce a yellow dye and are favoured by bee keepers.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants