Plant of the Week
Latin: Sorghum bicolor var. technicum
Our society is in a constant state of flux, casting off the old for a new and improved version of the future. Yet some basic needs never change and old methods often work just as well as the best new-fangled devices. For example, take dirt on the kitchen floor. When you’ve got a mess, your basic broom is a pretty useful invention.
Brooms evolved over the centuries from a leafy branch to a bundle of willow twigs tied to a handle to the broomcorn brooms of our youth. These natural fibers have now mostly been replaced by plastic, but retro products may gain new prominence in the future. Perhaps natural brooms made from broomcorn (Sorghum bicolor var. technicum) will again regain a place of honor in American closets.
Broomcorn is one of the ancient annual crops with no counterpart in the wild. Like most other sorghums it is thought to have originated in northern Africa and to have been selected for its unique brushy tassel over a long period of time.
It is an annual grass with a corn-like habit of growth that is capable of growing 8 to 15 feet tall. Its flowers are produced in a terminal tassel in midsummer on wispy branches that grow 12 to 18 inches in length. The flowers produce a seed grain that can be used in animal feed, in brewing spirits (China) or for human consumption (Africa), but mostly it is grown for its long, supple fibers.
Broomcorn is said to have been introduced to the United States by Benjamin Franklin in 1725; by 1781 Thomas Jefferson listed it as an important crop in Virginia. In 1797, Levi Dickenson of Hadley, Mass., is credited as being the first American to commercially manufacture brooms, but it was the Shakers of the Connecticut valley who revolutionized broom making by inventing the flat broom in the early 19th century.
Producing commercially acceptable broomcorn requires a lot of handwork. The tassels are harvested when the flowers just begin to wither and the fibers are beginning to change from green to yellow. If harvested too early the fibers are weak; if allowed to go too long they become too brittle. After harvesting the tassels are stacked in a ventilated drying shed for two weeks to air dry before further processing.
Broomcorn growing spread west as the continent was settled. By the middle years of the 20th century much of the commercial broomcorn acreage was concentrated in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. Then after the NAFTA treaties of the 1990s lifted the tariff on broomcorn imports, Mexico became the principle supplier of brooms for American kitchens.
This tall growing annual is enjoying a bit of a comeback for gardeners wishing to achieve maximal sustainability by making their own brooms. And it is the perfect plant for using in “corn” mazes. It grows in average garden soil in full sun sites. While it has the look of corn it is much more drought tolerant than that thirsty crop.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - September 11, 2009
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.