As cold and flu season approaches, I (Jacqueline Soule) would like to discuss a Sonoran plant to help treat colds, while it attracts bees, butterflies and other pollinators to your yard – the desert broom.
Desert broom (Baccharis sarothroides) is a vigorous shrub – often the first plant to grow on a cleared stretch of desert (or over the septic tank). Ecologically, it is a seral plant, meaning it is one of the first to colonize open ground – just like it’s cousin, the dandelion. Yes, they are both in the sunflower family!
It can be useful to have such a tough plant in your landscape, as it helps hold the soil against erosion, and its roots enrich the soil for other plants, including useful wildflowers like chia. We mentioned chia earlier – here. I discussed how to grow chia on the GardeningWithSoule.com site, and bring that up because November is still not to late to plant chia in your yard.
Desert broom comes in separate male and female plants. The females release their tiny fluffy seeds at the same time a number wind pollinated plants – like ragweed – release their pollen, thus the seeds of desert broom often get wrongly called an allergen. They are not! Indeed, the plants are bee pollinated and a good forage crop for honeybees.
Using Desert Broom
Desert broom has a long history of use as a medicinal plant. A decoction* made by cooking the twigs of desert broom is used to treat colds, sinus headache, and in general “sore aching” ailments. The Seri use this when other medicinal plants are not available, which tells us something. This same decoction is also used as a rub for sore muscles. Some of the Jesuits who followed Father Kino wrote of this use and possibly Father Kino used some of this rub after one of his epic rides.
* A decoction is different from an infusion. Infusion is made by adding boiling water to the herb and allowing it to soak or steep. This is how we use tea bags. A decoction boils the plant material and can release other compounds not released by infusing. Do not make a decoction when a infusion is called for.
The Science of Desert Broom
Few desert plants have been studied extensively but desert broom is an exception. Plant extracts have been examined and show that desert broom is rich in leutolin. Leutolin is a flavonoid that has demonstrated anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and cholesterol-lowering capabilities. Desert broom also has quercetin, a proven antioxidant. Finally, it contains apigenin, a chemical which binds to the same brain receptor sites that Valium does.
Caution – many members of the Sunflower family also contain compounds that cause negative side effects. As posted earlier – use the wisdom of the past wisely!
Dye from Desert Broom
Desert broom is so plentiful, and many of it’s seep willow cousins are used as dye, so I had to do the experiment. The result – yes! It does dye wool. Various mordants result in differing shades as seen below. Other members of the Baccharis genus have excellent colorfastness.
Desert Broom Planting and Care.
Plants may be purchased at nurseries or very easily grown from seed.
Avoid over-watering in heavy soils as desert broom will drown.
It will accept shearing and can be trained into a decent, short-lived privacy hedge. They are useful in the landscape since it grows in heavy clay or even salty soils where few other plants thrive.
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, visit Savorist Monica King Saturdays at the Arivaca Farmers Market, or come to one of Savorist Jacqueline Soule’s free lectures. We try to mention both on our Facebook page. We both have copies of “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today” (Tierra del Sol Institute Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there we will get a few pennies.
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