#13 Broom


Illustration of C. scoparius from Köhler's Medicinal Plants (1887)

Common or Scottish Broom (Cytisus scoparius) is a flowering yellow woody legume.  Often confused with GORSE or furze which is also a yellow-flowering bush that grows in rocky or sandy soil, the trifoliate flower of broom looks like a pea flower, and its seeds hang down in long black pods in the late summer.  The twiggy foliage of the plant is sturdy enough that it can actually be used as a broom, and thus in England it has “always been one of the plants beloved by witches” (Folkard 145).

Broom has a wide range of legendary associations.  The Plantagenet family is named after  the old name for bloom, Planta genista, and the plant's meaning  of “Humility. Neatness” in the Victorian language of flowers (Greenaway 10) seems to derive from one of the family mottos (Folkard 144-5) as well as matching the broom’s domestic role.  D.C. Watts’ mammoth Dictionary of Plant Lore points out that Bloudeuwedd in the Welsh Mabinagion is a woman created from broom flowers (47). Bloudeuwedd is famous for conspiring with her lover to kill her husband and is finally turned into an owl as punishment. Watts additionally affirms that “going to the broom. . . is always associated with sex,” but that folklore also links the flower with death.  Quoting a traditional rhyme "Sweep the house with blossomed broom in May/sweep the head of the household away," Watts notes that in Sussex it is thought unlucky to bring broom into the house during the month of May as it will cause the mother or father to die within the year (47). 

This last association seems particularly significant for Woolf as broom is mentioned only once in all her fiction, in The Voyage Out, where Rachel is reminded by the smell of broom of her mother’s funeral: “she had thereupon seen the little hall at Richmond laden with flowers on the day of her mother's funeral, smelling so strong that now any flower-scent brought back the sickly horrible sensation. . . . She saw her Aunt Lucy arranging flowers in the drawing-room. ‘Aunt Lucy,’ she volunteered, ‘I don't like the smell of broom; it reminds me of funerals’"(35).  The passage hearkens back to Virginia Stephen’s own experience of her mother Julia’s death as described in “A Sketch of the Past”:  “The hall reeked of flowers. They were piled on the hall table.   The scent still brings back those days of astonishing intensity” (92).  Woolf’s memoir does not specify the particular flowers whose scent she found so over-powering.  Although it would have been blooming at the time of Julia’s death on May 28, with its bright yellow flowers, bloom is not usually listed as a funeral or mourning flower.  Perhaps Woolf was inspired to substitute it because of its allusions to maternal death or with the duties of being female that Rachel will fail to assume.

There is one other, slightly comic mention of broom in a 1937 review of a book on fishing by John (Jack) Waller Hills, her half-sister Stella’s husband in which Woolf quotes an account of someone’s buttons popping off “like broom pods in the autumn” (E6 495).

See Works Cited Page for full documentation

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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...