Broom Corn–or is it Broomcorn?

Mrs. Homegrown here:

This summer I suggested we plant broom corn for no other good reason than I saw the seed pack at the nursery and thought it would be fun to make a broom. (This sort of temporary insanity often overtakes me in the seed aisle.) So without knowing anything at all about broom corn or broom making we planted a block of the stuff. Maybe I should have done a little research into broom making before planting, but I let it slide ’til harvest time. It’s not a disaster–I’m still going to try to make a broom. But now I know more and would do things a little differently if I was serious about the broom biz.

I’m going to share with you what I know about growing and harvesting broom corn to make brooms. Making the broom will have to be another post.

What is broom corn?

It’s a member of the very useful sorghum family: Sorghum vulgare var. technicum.  It’s a tall plant that closely resembles sweet corn, especially when young. However, when it matures it sports big, seedy tassel heads instead of corn cobs. 

As its name implies, it is an excellent material for broom manufacture. It really has no other purpose, except maybe in floral arrangements or as not-so-great animal fodder. As my favorite source, Broom Corn and Brooms: A treatise on raising broom corn and making brooms on a small or large scale (1908) says:

Like cork, Broom-corn is one of those natural products that are so perfectly adapted for the uses to which they are put, that no substitute has been, or is likely to be, found for it. In toughness, elasticity, sufficient, but not too great rigidity, lightness, and ease with which it is manufactured, it excels all other materials used for brooms.

The first recorded mention of it comes out of Italy in the 1500′s. Ben Franklin is credited with introducing the seeds to this country. But really, what innovation is that man not credited with?

Broom corn and broom manufacture was a big in the States, once upon a time. In the early 1900′s the US was the only country in the world exporting brooms. Of course that’s no longer the case–I assume our brooms come from China now–and most broom corn you buy probably comes from Mexico.

It was also not uncommon for folks with a bit of land to grow a stand of broom corn to keep them in brooms. Again, from the 1908 book:

…it is often cheaper to raise a patch of broom corn and have the boys make it up on rainy days, than to buy the brooms ready made. While home-made brooms may not be as handsome as the “boughten” ones, they will do quite as good work–provided the right person is at the other end of the handle.

 I think this says a lot about our general resourcefulness in past years–as well as something about the relative price of brooms.

Broom corn or Broomcorn?

I have no idea! My 1908 manual calls it Broom-corn. I tend trust the grammatical chops of people working a century ago for print. Broomcorn is just plain strange looking. But I’m sticking with broom corn as sort of a compromise, knowing that if anyone was searching the topic they’d probably use that form. And thus I contribute to the decline of literacy via the expediencies of the Internet.

ETA: It is broom corn, according to the OED.  You see broomcorn a lot though.

Can I grow it myself?

Yes. Apparently it can be grown almost anywhere. Certainly, if you can grow sweet corn you can grow it, but it’s less fussy than sweet corn, being tolerant of both drought and poor soil. However, the best broom material comes from big healthy plants raised on good soil with plenty of water and sunshine. The midwest used to be broom country.

You definitely want to plant your broom corn in blocks instead of long rows, so you get good pollination rates.

It’s really tall stuff (up to 15 feet), and needs some support if you let it ripen, because the heads get heavy.

Where do I get the seeds?

A quick search will give you several options. Mine were from Seed Savers Exchange. It’s a variegated color variety. The picture on the seed pack promised a huge variation in color. For the longest time I thought I’d been ripped off, because the tassels came out uniformly green and stayed that way til they ripened. Then they started to turn a uniform reddish-orange color. Only at the very end of the growing season did a bit of color variation begin to be evident–ranging from light orange to rust to red to burgundy, as you can see in the first picture. Very pretty stuff, but subtle. I think the seed packet illustration included the most extreme variations they could find, plus some unripe stalks for the lighter colors.

How much do I plant?

I finally found some good instructions on broom making (links later), long after planting, and those said that you need 45 nice big heads to make a standard flat broom. Each plant yields one head. My harvest was 50 heads total, including scrawny ones. This means I won’t be making a standard broom.

Keep that number–45–in mind, and then pad it to make allowance for small or malformed heads and your own mistakes while crafting. So I dunno how much exactly…lots? 60 or so plants per big broom?

Here’s something else you need to know: you have to use long heads to make full-sized brooms. The ideal tassel, or head, measures a cubit, which is the length from your elbow to the tips of your fingers. That’s the tassel alone, not the stalk to which is attached. None of my heads got that long. I’m not sure if this is because of our cultivation, or the variety, or what. From what I can glean, substandard sized heads are the part of every harvest–these were set aside for making whisk brooms. I will be making a whisk broom.

My harvest fit in a 5 gallon bucket. This is almost enough material to make a regular flat broom.

When do you harvest?

While waiting to see if the tassels would ever turn out to be variegated in color, I let my broom corn get completely ripe. The seeds are fully formed and heavy. This makes for pretty autumn bouquets, but is not ideal for broom manufacture. My 1908 manual says that the finest broom material is green and young. I don’t think I’m totally sunk, because those 1908 folks had very high standards re: brooms. Higher than mine, I don’t doubt.

Anyway, this is what they say about harvesting for brooms. This is the only info on this topic that I have been able to find:

Most successful growers say that the cutting should commence as soon as the “blossoms” begin to fall. After the flowers have been fertilized and the seed “set,” the antlers, or male organs and male flowers, fall away, and this is called the dropping of the “blossom.” At this time the seed has just begun to form and it is in a merely rudimentary condition, and the brush at this period is not only the best color, but it is heavier…and more durable.

How do you harvest?

For broom material, cut the stalks 6 to 8 inches beneath the base of the heads. If you want the heads for floral arrangements, the length is up to you. After cutting go ahead and peel away any leaves. The old manual has much advice as to how to do this systematically in the field–for instance, this charming illustration:

But alone in your backyard, and sadly lacking the dapper headwear, you will probably just have to wrestle with the tall stocks as you think best, bringing them down so you can lop of their heads. This will leave you with a ton of compost material–or useful compostable biomass in Jeavons-speak.

Her you can kind of see how the strands that form the heads come together at the stalk. You cut 6-8 inches below that point.

Curing the material

The heads have to be dried after harvest. No one is saying how long–’til dry, I assume. The stalks should be dried indoors or at least under cover, and they should be laid out flat, so they’ll dry straight. If I kept the stalks in the bucket, for instance, they’d dry with a definite curve to them. Not good.

The problem with taking on agricultural crafts in the city is the distinct lack of agricultural facilities, such as drying sheds. (A tobacco shed, apparently, would be perfect.) Not to mention a lack of space in the house. My broom corn is currently on the kitchen table, where it will be a nuisance for a week or two.

The cats were thrilled by the corn in the bucket, but as compelling as it was as a cat toy, I had to take it away from them and lay the heads out flat to dry.

Removing the seeds

Yep, the heads have to be stripped down so you have nice clean broom straw to work with. I haven’t done this yet, so will have to include what I learn in the next post where I tell you of my zany broom making adventures. But it sounds like you have to comb them off. For small batches, the 1908 book suggests either a long toothed curry comb (’cause we all have those around!) or sawing teeth into the end of a board to make a comb, and then fixing that board to something stable, so you can really tug the heads through. Go read the manual if you want more deets. I might just try a regular comb. You can also thresh it. If you have any idea how to begin threshing–which I don’t.

One last thing to think about:

If you want to make a broom with a long handle, you can use a dowel, or a re-purposed handle, or a hardwood branch. If you like the rustic branch look, keep in mind that the branch must be aged and dry. So if you’re planning on growing some corn to make brooms next summer, now would be a good time to gather your branches. Put them somewhere dry and let them cure for a year.




Resources

Broom Corn and Brooms: A treatise on raising broom corn and making brooms on a small or large scale (1908)  I love this little book for its illustrations and wonderful fuddy-duddy prose. I read it out loud until Erik begged me to stop. Its instructions on making brooms are hard to follow and mostly unillustrated, but the cultivation info is invaluable. This link will take you to Google Books, where you can download a pdf.

How to Make a Broom, by Little John Holzwart. This is a Mother Earth News article, and the best instructions I’ve found. He doesn’t talk about growing or harvesting at all, though. Be sure to look at the photo gallery. Pictures help a whole lot. Little John sells brooms at Moonwise Herbs.

There are a surprising number of broom handcrafters on the Internets. Seems they’ve been given a big boost by Harry Potter in general and specifically by Quidditch teams needing funky brooms. Seriously. So poke around and see what these things look like.

I like seeing all the forms laid out in one place here at Granville Island Broom Company. I’m tempted to make a turkey wing whisk, a cobwebber or a scrubber. A scrubber suits my skill level.


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19 Comments

  1. You might try contacting Old Sturbridge Village, in Sturbridge, MA to find more info on growing and processing broom corn. They do make brooms at the village, and are a good resource on agriculture and horticulture in the Federal period generally.

  2. I believe threshing is the equivalent of whacking the seed heads against a cement floor, or other hard surface until they all fall off. My husband is a real farm boy, and has gotten into using a scythe. He has suggested something of this manner. Didn’t you use some method of that with flax?

  3. Often, the typesetters just used the capitalization or punctuation as they saw best. So, in older Books, you cannot always depend on their decisions on Capitilization or Hyphens as being approved by Grammarians. Looking in the OED might settle Spelling through the ages. See, I just did it. Maybe someone will read my text later and decide that I knew how to capitalize…lol…and copy my caps in the last few sentences.

    I use a broom made by the Alabama Industries for the Blind–a corn broom. When we (not blind) struggled in class to cane a chair with 8 pieces of cane going into one hole and an intricate weave, the teacher reminded us that blind people can learn to do this. No one else complained, and we worked harder.

    When I wanted to buy a real broom for my grandson, 2-yrs-old, in NY, I purchased the child’s red broom and mailed it to him.It turns out the broom was made in Brooklyn, right where he lived.

    The broom corn makes a nice backdrop for the fountain.

    My last corn broom, mop, and whisk from the AIB was purchased in a jewelry store. You can only buy these from Lion’s Club members. I know where to get a good broom, and it’s not at a hardware store or Walmart. Insurance agents, jewelers, and bankers sell them.

    The reason corn brooms are a superior sweeping instrument is that the ends of the broom have little crevices or slits to carry away dust better than the solid plastic brooms. Okay, maybe all this is in the links you gave.

    If you don’t make your own broom, buy from the Industries for the Blind.

    This was a great post!

  4. We planted some multicolored broom corn this year. I’ll be cutting it soon and my daughter and I will try our hand at broom making as well. The seeds will go to the chickens.
    We have a friend who works at Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO, a historical themed amusement park and we spent a while visiting with the broom maker they’ve got there last year when we were there. Of course, I don’t have the specialized equipment he’s got but it should be fun.
    Judy

  5. @Anna: Yep, Erik figured out how to thresh the flax…or did something thresh-ish, I think. I was out of town and missed it all. I’m worried that beating it will damage the straw. Combing seems a better bet.

  6. Seems to me that if you just hung it in small bunches from your eaves, it’d dry straight enough. Do you think your neighbors would mind too much if you hung stuff off of your roof? It’d look wacky, but it would probably dry quickly…

  7. @Anna, again: That last comment from Erik was from me–in case you thought Erik had an identity disorder. I was sitting at his computer and forgot to sign in.

    @Rena: Sun isn’t good for the corn, and our eaves are not deep at all. Hanging does make sense, though, and believe me all day today I’ve been contemplating hanging a pole from our bedroom ceiling for this and my other herb projects.

  8. I was confused, thinking you must have left,too.

    Do you have the volumes of OED or have it in electronic form? Either way I am thoroughly impressed and even more envious, envious is a good way. Owning that volume of books is my dream. I could give up TV, novels, social science books, and read the OED while I sat outside with my hens.

    Oh, I was not criticizing you. I saw you marked through the information. But, that is just one of the almost totally useless things I learned in grad school. I think this is the first time I ever pulled that out of my brain for anyone. Thank you for the opportunity….lol.

  9. i love that you did all the research and learned so much about broom corn. AND featured a very cute pic of your sweet kitties to boot.

    on another note … i’m getting very close to making my first small project from your book, Making It. love the book – i read it and fantasize about being more self-sufficient.

  10. I bought those same seeds this spring but never got them in the ground, it’s fun to read about your research and experiments. My alma mater, Berea College has a student labor program (students don’t pay tuition, they work instead…) and broom making is one of the departments. http://bereacollegecrafts.com/shop/broom-making

    Their broom corn is not grown locally anymore though.

    Looking forward to seeing your broom-making!

  11. How exciting! Thanks for this! I’ve been waiting to hear about how this was going. I am dying to make my own broom, I have no idea why. Can’t wait to see your broom.

    (There was a tiny story on handmade brooms in the October Martha Stewart Living magazine, if you’re interested….)

  12. I love that picture of little Trout so entranced by those seedy tassels, and Phoebe wondering where to bat it first…

    Aside from that, the seeds are a nice chicken treat. I grew broomcorn last year on a whim, and on a quest for an alternative to corn as a chicken snack. I would bundle up a few tassels, hold that out for the girls, and they’d peck all the seeds off and then waddle away patting their full crops. You won’t lose too much straw during this process if you keep an eye on them to make sure no one is gobbling straws down with the seeds.

    I dried most of the tassels, picked the seeds out by hand (it was a good ‘while watching the news’ activity), and still have a small bag of those. These are added with black oil sunflower seeds to oatmeal on really cold mornings, for the hens. They always get a dollop of plain yogurt stirred into that, too.

    The alternate grain I tried this year (I didn’t have enough space for the broom corn) was millet, and it was an epic fail because of uneven temps, but it was a good plant to let the hens mow down a couple days a week.

  13. @Sara: Thanks for the tips. I’d read that chickens aren’t super-fond of the seeds–but I was going to try to feed them the seeds anyway. The ladies always surprise me what they like and don’t like–and how quickly their whims change. They’re almost like cats–eg “I loved that yesterday but today I want something new.” Except for scratch, of course, which is their crack.

    I really like the idea of them doing the threshing for me!

  14. Some people thresh using a string trimmer, but I think that might chew up the straw too much.

    Maybe an urban flail, a set of nunchaku?

  15. @Practical Parsimony: I was lucky enough to score a 1930 edition of the OED several years ago for only $15. It is abridged, and I would really like a current one at some point, but I still love it.

  16. I love this. We just went, over Thanksgiving, to the Homestead Fine Arts and Heirloom Craft Festivel in Waco, Texas and we watched broom making demonstrations. You can also look up cobweb brooms, and we make a bakers broom. So amazing. Thanks for the wonderful informative post.
    Melissa

  17. Thank you so much for all your research! This has been the most helpful information on line I have found.
    Happy Broom making!

  18. This was a timely post for me to come upon. I grew broom corn this year, in a row, just because i saw the seeds at the store and thought the grandkids would like seeing it. I will wait a couple of weeks before cutting. Luckily i live on a farm and have an old screen and saw horses that i will use to dry them. y farmer husband was very curious about what it was that i had growing in the garden. We have a weed in our area we call shatter cane that only gets a head similar to the broom corn. It grows amongst the corn and when it goes through the combine, it scatters over the field and there is that much more next year. It doesn’t happen so much anymore, but he thought it was a crazy thing to have growing in my garden. I wonder if I can use the seeds for next year? Thanks for the post!

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