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“That's not Broom, is it?”

  • “That's not Broom, is it?”
  • “That's not Broom, is it?”
  • “That's not Broom, is it?”

...said the visitor, “Broom isn't a climber, surely? It grows on heaths, doesn't it?”

Yes it does - but in certain circumstances, and with certain species, it can also grow on walls! The photos show Pineapple Broom, proper name Cytisus battandieri (a name which always makes me think of Flamenco for some reason... or cake), which makes a lovely wall-trained shrub but needs to be in a sheltered area, as it is not fully hardy.

Isn't it lovely? I could see her confusion, though: a lot of people aren't sure about the difference between Broom and Gorse anyway, and she asked me to explain it to her.

Never one to miss an opportunity to discuss botany, I explained that when discussing Broom, we always have to start with the question:

Broom, Whin or Gorse?

All three are more-or-less evergreen shrubs, bearing yellow, pea-like flowers which explode when insects alight on them, thus pinging the pollen all over the hapless insect. They all grow in the wild (except for my tender Pineapple Broom) on disturbed soil, often at roadsides, on scrubby, dry heaths and on rough grasslands. So how do we tell the difference?

Gorse (Ulex) have no normal flat leaves at all, other than on very young plants: mature plants are covered in branching green spines, which provide photosynthesis and protection all in one.

Whin (Genista) have green leaves which are oval or oblong, along with a few simple (unbranched) spines. The leaves are sessile, which means stalk-less: they are attached directly to the stems, one by one.

Broom (Cytisus) is completely free of spines and rather erect, with long green five-angled stems, carrying stalked green tri-foliate leaves - that means each leaf has usually three leaflets, rather like Clover - on younger stems. Older stems tend to be bare of leaves.

Like everything to do with botany and gardening, the confusion arises because we all use the common names, and we often use them wrongly. For example, the names gorse, furze and whin are all used interchangeably to mean gorse - which is Ulex. But officially, whin is Genista: it's a different genus, it has leaves, and few spines. And in Scotland, “broom” is Ulex (gorse - or whin, or furze) whereas actually Broom is Cytisus, which has very different leaves and no spines at all!

Still confused? It gets easier: Genista (Whin) likes limestone grasslands, which are alkaline in nature: whereas Gorse (Ulex) prefers acidic soil, such as heathlands. So, if you know what sort of underlying soil you have, you can make a guess as to whether you are looking at Gorse or Whin. And if has tri-foliate leaves, it's neither!

They all have very similar flowers, but flower at slightly different times. Both Broom (Cytisus) and Whin (Genista) flower in the early summer, from May to June. The two less common types of Gorse - Dwarf Gorse, U. minor and Western Gorse, U. gallii - flower later in the summer, from July to September. But common Gorse, U europaeus, flowers pretty much all year round, if it's fairly mild. Which lead to a popular folk saying: ‘When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion’. It’s a knowing wink to the fact that, in milder areas, gorse can flower all year round - so kissing never goes out of fashion.

And finally, a quick word about Broom in popular culture: back in the 1800s, the Victorians were accustomed to using flowers to send secret, coded messages during a time when young ladies were not allowed to fraternise with young men (ah, how times have changed!), and liaisons had to be arranged discretely and modestly. Sending a Broom flower represented Humility and Neatness: presumably at that time, those were desirable qualities. Not so much, these days!

Comments (4)

  1. Grower

    A Seed Once Sown

    Very interesting post. The trouble being gardeners rather than naturalists, we make it ever more confusing when we add the likes of Spartium junceum, Chamaecytisus purpureus and even Ruscus aculeatus (amongst others) to the list that we like to term “brooms”. It just goes to highlight the inherent problem in using common names for plants and the difficulty in untangling historical usage. There are still those who insist on calling a philadelphus by the name of syringa or identifying a pelargonium as a geranium but I can actually sympathise when I go into the garden to tend the “asters” only to find I no longer own any...botanically speaking!

  2. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    I think that more and more people are learning the proper names, and using them: certainly when I first started gardening professionally, hardly anyone used proper names but now it's quite different.

    I think this is partly due to modern nursery practice - plants are now bought from nurseries, potted and properly labelled, instead of being handed over by a neighbour, wrapped in newspaper.

    And partly due to an acceptance that we live in a modern, industrial world, we understand that genetic investigation has allowed us to reclassify plants more accurately, and we are more accustomed now to using complicated words for things.

    Oh, and thirdly, with instant nationwide communication - we all watch the same TV programmes, we all learn the same national curriculum, we all have access to the internet - there has been a massive drop in the use of "local" names.

    I would almost, tentatively, suggest that we actively want to move away from using "local" names, in order not to be seen as parochial or bumpkin-like!

  3. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    They are a very interesting group. Easy to grow, and a comodate. To make it more confusing, Genista Hispanica is Spanish gorse, looks like gorse. Pineapple broom, Argyrocytisus battandieri as it is now correctly called ( still,Cytisus in gardens) is amazing with its silvery leaves. Genista Hispanica looks a bit like gorse, very tough and pretty. Others include Echinospartium horrida, an even more vicious plant that hugs the screes of the Pyranees,
    Ratana is an amazing genus of North African brooms with their weeping habit and white or yellow flowers, there is a couple of hardy ones. Calicotome is the spiny brooms of the Mediterranean, I have not seen these in cultivation, but I will get some somehow to try. Erinacea are the hedgehog brooms, dwarf alpines with blue or pink flowers, very slow growing ang very spiny as expected from their common name. Finally probably not brooms at all with their pinnate leaves, Carmichaelia, the New Zealand brooms. These are suited to wetter conditions and seem hardy in the UK. With their small blue flowers ( they can come in white), they really need to be better known. They can change names as don't we all know, it was not too long ago that Cytisus was known only as Sarothamnus

  4. Grower

    Rob Johnson, Green & Furry pet and garden care

    Ratama not Ratana. Spellcheck error


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