Fragrant Plants in Legend, Myth and Folklore-Broom by Lady Caroline Catharine Wilkinson

Genêt à balais

BROOM-Cytisus scoparius and Genista spp.

Broom by Lady Caroline Catharine Wilkinson

Oh, the broom, the yellow broom,
The ancient poets sung it,
And still the poets love to lie
The summer hours among it.

NOR is it very wonderful that they should do so ;
not alone on account of the golden glories of its
radiant bloom, but because it grows in spots which
are a very paradise to the poet's heart. Shunning
the tranquil meadows and fertile corn-lands of
better cared-for tracts, it lives away on the breezy
hill-side, where no maledictory glance from the
eye of the practical agriculturist turns upon its
beauties. And there, with the breezes of heaven
blowing all around, it bathes in the flooding sun-
light, and opens a very sea of blossoms, whose
tints seem to have been won from that light itself.
There, too, in its taper branchlets the linnets build,
and seem to furnish it with a living voice of joy
and gladness, so that ceaseless hymns of thankfulness
and praise rise like incense from its groves. And
there the " heart of the observant poet " learns in
the " summer hours " those lessons, which, with un-
erring instinct, those creatures to whom reason has
not been given

" Have taught so long and well ;"

creatures from whom he may learn much, that it
is his especial mission, his especial glory to impart
whether in actual song or in the oft-times nobler
poetry of prose to the less keenly observant, less
quickly sensitive amongst his brother men. What
wonder, then, if he seek the broom-lands for his
musings ; the tracts for which, the flexible and poetic
language of Italy furnishes a distinctive word, i
ginestreti ? What wonder if modern poets, too, have
sung it ? Thus Chaucer says :

" Amid the broom he basked him in the sun."

Wordsworth points out, that

" The broom
Full-flowered, and visible on every steep,
Along the copses runs in veins of gold."

Thompson sings :

" Or where Dan Sol, to slope his wheels began,
Amid the broom he basked him on the ground,
Where the wild thyme and camomile are found.'

Cowper tells of

" The broom
Yellow and bright as bullion unalloyed."

Darwin shews where

" Sweet blooms genista in the myrtle shades."

Coleridge wanders

Amid the fragrance of the yellow broom ;
While o'er our heads the weeping beech-tree stream'd
Its branches, arching like a fountain shower."

And the northern ballad sweeter than all in its
strong feeling of ho f me declares,

" More pleasant far to me the broom
That blows sae fair on Cowden Knowes,*
For sure so sweet, so soft, a bloom,
Elsewhere there never grows."

Again, the old Welsh bard, Dafydd ap Gwillym, in
his Banadl Iwyn^ dwells lovingly on the beauties
of the golden copse, in the poem commencing ;

" Y fun well ei llun a'i lliw
Na'r iarlles wn o'r eurlliw ;"

here presented to the reader in the English ver-
sion of Mr. A. Johnes, which will, at least, convey
to him an idea of its sentiments.

Its branches are arrayed in gold
Its boughs the sight in winter greet,
With hues as bright, with leaves as green,
As summer scatters o'er the scene.

Green is that arbour to behold,
And on its withes thick showers of gold !

* * * * *

Oh ! flowers of noblest splendour, these
Are summer's frostwork on the trees!

A house of passing loveliness,
A fabric of Arabia's gold
Bright golden tissue, glorious tent
Of him who rules the firmament ;
With roof, of various colours blent !

An angel, 'mid the woods of May,
Embroidered it with radiance gay
That gossamer with gold bedight
Those fires of God those gems of light!

Like gleam of starlight o'er the skies
Like golden bullion, glorious prize !
How sweet the flowers that deck that floor,
In one unbroken glory blended."

Nor is the " bonnie broom " less conspicuous in
the annals of Heraldry, and consequently in the
history of dress ; although, under this head it is dif-
ficult, indeed impossible, to separate the very distinct,
though closely allied, plants, the Genista properly
so called or greenweed, and the Cytisus, or real
broom. In fact, either appears to have been indif-
ferently used. Ordinary history tells us that
Henry II. of England, wearing the broom -planta
genista in his cap, assumed, and transmitted, the
now royal surname of Plantagenet. But there is
strong evidence to prove that Fulke, Earl of Anjou,
the grandfather of Henry, wore the plant as the
symbol of humility, in his penitential pilgrimage to
the Holy Land ; while it is certain that the son of
this earl, Geoffry, surnamed Pulcher, or Le Bel ; both
used the crest, and bore the name, or more properly
soubriquet, surnames being then unknown.

The broom frequently occurs as an ornament in
the wardrobe rolls both of England and France.
We read that the queen of Richard II. had a
dress of rosemary and broom of Cyprus, in gold and
silk on a white ground. And a broom-plant with
its open pods despoiled of their seeds, ornaments the
robe of her husband, in his tomb in Westminster
Abbey. Not a little learning and heraldic research
have been expended on this one simple, and well-
imagined emblem. Antiquarians have endeavoured
to shew that the armorial bearings of this monarch
were distinguished from those of others of his family
by the absence of the seeds from the pods, which
last appear to have been borne from the earliest
period of its adoption as a device. But they have
overlooked all the beauty of the design. They have
not felt, with the designer, the truthful force of the
silent record. The ripened seed had fallen from its
husk ; the germ of immortality was parted from its
shell ; the body was laid in the dust, and the soul
was called into a life eternal, e'er the marble tomb
was raised. The seed of life, the soul of the man,
had passed away from the world, and the mask of
royalty, the badges of power and pomp, were left
behind as earthly heritages to his successors. Rarely
indeed does the sculptured shield, or the marble
tomb convey its lessons to us with such dignity as
in that empty broom-pod !

Too often we discover, on examination, that
any lessons we may derive from such, arise from
the instinctive promptings of our own hearts, from
the spontaneous whispering of the mind, which
revolts from its solemn and empty pomp. In the
present instance, however, it is the monument it-
self that speaks. Or rather it is the spirit of the
sculptor, which freeing itself from the trammels of
"custom," " being dead, yet speaketh/' Extinguished
torches, mourning angels, and other rude, and to
say the least of them, not very christian-like
emblems of death, we have in abundance on our
tombs ; emblems, which can neither be pleasing to
the survivors, nor suitable to those whom they have
lost. But to this kingly, though in some respects
barbarous memorial, I would direct the attention
of our student sculptors and heralds : if the first
would learn the force of truth in design, or the
last would see how 'moral dignity may be im-
parted to the blazoned shield. Few, I think, can
have entered, for the first time and with unpre-
judiced feelings, the solemn precincts of West-
minster Abbey, or any other of our cathedrals,
without feeling shocked and pained beyond ex-
pression by the heathen monuments which, with
but rare exceptions, deface the hallowed walls,
and disturb the quietude of feeling otherwise pro-
duced by the place. It is well that this sacred
fane has, at least, its one truly Christian emblem
of the putting off of mortality; so different from
the gigantic and muscular-looking angels bearing
departed spirits to heaven on petrified clouds re-
sembling feather-beds ; while cherubs "bodiless in
the most material sense of the word trumpet
forth, with inflated cheeks, the "name, and style,
and title," of the being who " departs this life."
Few, I think, will not have felt how different
are the emotions provoked by some such dese-
cration of the memory of the dead, and those
evoked by the simple device of the empty, and
placidly opened husk, from which the ripened seed
has fallen only to rise into a new life : fit com-
panion for the noblest epitaph in the world ; the
beautiful "Emigravit" of the painter, Albert Durer.
But I have wandered far beyond my bounds, and
must return to the learned and valuable researches
of Mr. Gough Nichols,* .of which I have already so
largely availed myself. At an early period, as he
shews, the broom was a very favourite emblem in
France. In the year 1 234, St. Louis, as he is usually
styled, celebrated the coronation of his queen, the
fair Margaret of Provence, by creating a new order
of knighthood :( the soldiers of the broom, Mi-
lites genestella, the collar of which was composed of
broom-flowers interwoven with the white lily (as
emblematic of humility and purity), and bearing a
golden cross, with the motto, " Exaltat humilis."

In the year 1368, Charles V. granted to his cham-
berlain, Geoffry de Belleville, the right to wear, in
all feasts and companies, the insignia of the broom-
pod ;* this was, evidently, a thing quite distinct
from the badge of the Milites genestella ; and, in-
deed, at a later period, that of our own Henry IV.,
we find it described as the livery of the King of
France. In the year 1389, Charles VI. gave the
same decoration to his kinsmen, the King of Sicily
and the Prince of Tarenturn, making them, by the
gift, knights of the Star of the Broom-pods ;*f* so
that a certain dignity, not before appertaining to it,
was now evidently attached to the insignia. And in
the year 1393, we even find him ordering his gold-
smith, John Compere, to make for Richard II., of
England, and his uncles, the Dukes of Gloucester,
York, and Lancaster, collars formed of two twisted
stalks interlaced with broom-pods, enamelled in
white and green, and thickly set with pearls ; with
which alternated fifty letters forming "the word
James (? jamais), ten times repeated/' The value
of the whole amounted to upwards of eight hun-
dred and thirty francs. At a later period, however,
such jewels became far more costly; one of the three
described amongst the crown jewels after the acces-
sion of Henry IV., being, " overages de genestes,
garnisez de iiii balez, iii saphirs, xxvi perles, poisant
ii, une, et di'."* Henry VI., in the fourth year of
his reign, had a collar made for himself of the letter
S, intertwined with broom-pods ; and in his ward-
robe accounts occur, robes worked " cum ramis de

The motto of James, or as it is more usually
written, jamais,"f appears to have been attached to
the device of the broom ; perhaps, on account of the
evergreen nature of its branchlets, which made it
symbolical of eternity. Thus, Menestrier mentions
having seen a pall, long preserved in the monastery
of the Dominicans, at Poissy, and which had covered
the coffin of Madame Marie de France, the sister of
Charles II., " semeY' as heralds term it, with sprays
of broom, and with the word jamais, in Gothic

The Highland clan, Forbes, are true Plantagenets,
so far as their device goes, as the broom is still their
distinctive badge.

The natives of Brittany also have selected it for
their emblem, and appear to hold it in high estima-
tion. In their popular songs the lover compares his
loved one to " the yellow flower of the broom/'

" Evel ar bleun melen balan." *

While a brother bard, in a popular song of Wales,
called, T Fwyalchen, or, The Blackbird, makes a
somewhat similar comparison :

" Lliw'r Banadl melyn ei gwallt."
" The colour of the yellow broom is the hair of her head."

And, again, in that which relates the tale of the
betrothed Azdnor the Pale, we are told that :

" La petite Azenor etait assise,
Aupres de la fontaine,
Vetue d'une robe de soie jaime,
Au bord de la fontaine,
Toute seule,
Assemblant des fleurs de gent,
En faire un bouquet, &c."

In short, the broom plays a conspicuous part in all
affairs connected with a Breton marriage, the " inter-
mediary" chosen by the contracting parties usually
the father of the bridegroom is designated for the
time, the Baz-lalan, or "Broom walking-stick/' from
the circumstance of his always carrying a stick of
this shrub with him when engaged on his mission.
The broom is known to be a most exhaustive
crop, so that a hedge of this plant will impoverish
the land on each side of it to a most unlooked-for
extent ; a circumstance that, perhaps, accounts
for the fact recorded by Sir T. Dick Lauder, that
after the parent-plant has passed away, some years
elapse before the seeds shed around it will vege-
tate; though this is not the case if the seeds be
sown in a new soil. It is, therefore, a respite
afforded by Nature ; or, rather, a proof that the
soil has been deprived by the old plant of such con-
stituent parts as are essential to the development of
the seedling, and which time alone can replace ; and
it also serves to throw a light on the circumstance,
that though we usually see all the symptoms of a
poor soil where the broom flourishes, yet there is
truth in the popular belief that its occurrence is a
proof of fertility, since a plant of so exhaustive a
nature could not be supplied by a very barren soil,
although, as we have before said, it prefers a light
and gravelly one. To this also the old proverb,
"There is gold under the broom," must point : for
the usually alleged reason namely, that grass is
found beneath its shelter at an earlier season than
in the open fields, is very insufficient, and will
equally apply to any sheltering brush-wood or other
plant. In Flanders, and especially in the vicinity
of Ghent, however, the broom is sown to improve
and consolidate sandy ground ; a practice which
might, perhaps, be followed with great advantage
on some of our coasts ; the more so, as the whole
tribe of leguminous plants appear to be very ser-
viceable in resisting, by the matting of their roots,
the encroachments of tide and wind on a sandy
shore. In the Eastern desert of Egypt the broom
(Spartium monospermum, the Ruttum of the
Arabs), grows and flourishes : occurring in great
abundance between the Nile and the Isthmus of
Suez, a little to the N. of latitude 30. The broom
forms an excellent pasture, for sheep, and is valuable
on account of its being green " the winter through/'
The naturalist of Berwick-upon-Tweed was informed
by an intelligent farmer, that the sheep invariably
devour the pods first, which produce a kind of in-
toxication, the symptoms of which are, happily, of
but short duration, and do not appear to injure the
health of the animals. Men also are similarly af-
fected by them, so that, as he remarks, the circum-
stance explains the, apparently mysterious, lines of
Allan Ramsey, which speak of the ale brewed by a
certain landlady :

" Some say it was with pith (pips ?) of broom
Which she stowed in her masking-loom,
Which in our heads raised sic a soom."

Broom-twigs however are, or were, not unfre-
quently used, in equal proportions with hops, for the
purpose of imparting a bitter to beer; whether
with the same effect I know not. Every part of
the plant is exceedingly bitter ; and every part, like
many another bitter thing, is exceedingly useful.
The twigs infused, are a very popular remedy for
dropsy ; and are admitted into the Materia Medica,
and prescribed by our physicians as a valuable di-
uretic. The seeds are said to possess emetic, as well
as cathartic, properties. The branches have been
used for tanning leather, which, of course gives proof
of the presence of an astringent principle. The
flower-buds, just before they begin to shew the
yellow, are pickled in imitation of capers, and the
seeds, according to M. Pagot des Charnes, make an
excellent coffee. The wood, when it is suffered to
attain to a sufficient age, is much prized by cabinet-
makers, who employ it in veneering. The twigs are
used for thatching cottages and ricks. The fibres
were formerly converted, in this country, into a
strong cloth, just as they are at the present day by
the peasants of Lower Languedoc, and especially of
Lodeve, where the broom furnishes almost all the
linen in domestic use ; while the refuse from the
manufacture supplies the manufacturers with firing.*
These fibres also make an excellent paper; and
finally, the whole plant, when reduced to ashes,
yields a serviceable, and very pure, alkaline salt. So
that, certainly, the broom must not be considered
useless in its beauty.

The mention of the cloth produced from its fibres
will naturally draw our attention to the names by
which our broom is known. Many botanical works
still refer it, with Linnaeus, to Spdrtium^ a name
signifying cordage (o-Traprov), which was applied by
the Greeks to a plant, considered to be the Spanish
broom (S. junceum) whose fibre is frequently sup-
posed to be employed in the manufacture of the
much celebrated alpergates, or woven shoes, of Spain ;
but which, I believe, are really formed of a grass
(Macrochloa tenacissima). The name, however, is
extended to all such vegetables as might be em-
ployed in a manner similar to flax and hemp,* im-
plying, in fact, any fibrous plant. The single species
which is indigenous to Britain, is now, however,
more usually included under the head of Cytisus (C.
scopdrius, of Hooker) or of Sarothdmnus ; while,
as I have said, it shares almost throughout Europe
its historic name of genista with the bright and
pretty little Green- weeds, so well known for their
valuable dyeing properties.

The same may be said with regard to the Welsh
name, fanadl ; which, simply signifying a plant with
pointed twigs or branches, is indifferently applied
to the two forms of genista : the prefixed syllable,
however, to a certain extent distinguishing between
them. Thus while Corfanadl (corr, dwarf), and
Banadlos (Mdn^ small) appear to be used to desig-
nate either the hairy green-weed (G. pilosa), or the
petty- whin (G. dnglica), Aurfanadl (Aur, gold),
seems to belong exclusively to the broom (Ci/tisus),
as does also the poetic and prettily expressive name
of Nelynog-y-waun, " Goldfinch of the meadow/'

The Cytisus scopdrius is doubtless familiar to
most of our readers, as its frequent introduction
into gardens and shrubberies, of which it forms a
conspicuous ornament, has made it known to those
whose lot has not been cast in its native wilds ;
yet it is in its natural habi- tat that we must
seek for it in its greatest beauty, and see its golden,
and bee -attracting blossoms in their truest splendour ;
and then we shall indeed, acknowledge it to be a poet's
blossom, a flower which may well have inspired many
an ancient minne-singer, many a joyous troubadour, to
sing its praise, or herald its fame. The greatest novice
in botanic lore can feel no doubt as to the identity of the
plant when he meets with it, distinguish ed as it is by its
large bright flowers, COMMON BROOM. Cytisus scoparius,
at its broad keel, and wide-spread standard and wings,
as well as by its long, straight, green, smooth and
pliant branches, and its flattened, and many-seeded,
pods, which, as Sir J. E. Smith remarks, are a little
hairy at the margin. Its leaves, which are deciduous,
though the whole aspect of the plant is that of an
evergeen, are ternate below, but become single, or as
botanists term it, " simple/' towards the tops of the
branches. Its seeds are shining, and slightly flat-
tened; and the whole plant, which on commons and
exposed hill-sides scarcely rises to a height of more
than three feet, or perhaps trails on the ground, is
frequently seen in some sunny and sheltered copse
to form a grove of eight, or even ten feet high, which
blossoms in the early summer time like a molten sea
of gold.