Last weekend I attended the annual Oregon Flock & Fiber Festival (“OFFF”). It was a lovely event! My attention was caught by a vendor display I’d before never seen: Squire Brooms of Bay Center, Washington. The owners, John and Margaret Simurdak, had a beautiful display of handmade Shaker-style brooms. Like all of the vendors at OFFF, John and Margaret were happy to chat about their craft and demonstrate some of their techniques.
I learned, for instance, that what I’ve always thought as “straw brooms” aren’t made from straw. They’re made from broom corn. Surprised, I asked if they were made from actual corn tassels. No, explained Margaret, they’re made from a sorghum plant. I came home with a beautiful kitchen broom and, being me, curious about the sorghum and history of American made brooms.
There are over 200 varieties of sorghum. The sorghum Margaret was referring to is Sorghum vulgare, commonly known as broomcorn.
According to Washington State University Extension, “Broomcorn (Sorghum vulgare) is not actually corn, but is instead related to the sorghums used for grain and syrup (Sorghum bicolor).” The Sorghum vulgare variety is used for making brooms because, as explained by the University of Wisconsin Extension, “It differs from other sorghums in that it produces heads with fibrous seed branches that may be as much as 36 in. long.” (Picture from Root Simple, which, by the way, notes that according to the OED, it should be written as “broom corn” not “broomcorn.” Oh well, maybe the Americans prefer the later!)
On the website of Lorenzo’s OK Seeds I read that “Benjamin Franklin is recognized as introducing broomcorn to the United States in the early 1700s. In 1797 farmer Levi Dickenson from Hadley, Massachusetts, used a bundle of broom corn to make an extremely good broom for his wife and word of mouth took over.” Wikipedia notes that Dickenson soon “invented a machine that would make better brooms, and faster than he could. In 1810, the foot treadle broom machine was invented. This machine played an integral part in the Industrial Revolution.”
I wondered why the plant is called “broomCORN” if it is actually a sorghum plant. According to Broom Shop, “By about 1810, the sorghum used in brooms, had acquired a new name, Broom Corn, as the British called all seed bearing plants, ‘corn.'” On this website I also read that the U.S. “broom industry flourished until 1994 when foreign brooms were permitted into the U.S., duty free. The remaining small factories struggle to compete with Mexican-made brooms, while individual broom makers … make a few thousand high quality brooms each year and tell the interesting stories of our history.”
I am happy to own and use a Squire Broom. Interestingly, Lorenzo’s OK Seeds also notes that broomcorn is “now being used as a fashionable ornamental plant in garden beds and for borders by discriminating landscapers and gardeners. The gently waving, colorful and heavily-laden seed heads will add visually stimulating dimensions to your garden that are difficult to achieve with other plants.”
Well, I know what I’m adding to my new garden! Has anyone grown this?