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— 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. 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 These natural fibers have now mostly been replaced by plastic.

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 inVirginia. In 1797, Levi Dickenson of Hadley, MA, is credited as being the first American to commercially manufacture brooms, but it was the Shakers of the Connecticut valley who revolutionized broom making.

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.

Broomcorn growing spread west as the continent was settled. By the middle years of the twentieth century much of the commercial broomcorn acreage was concentrated in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. Then after the NAFTA treaties of the 1990s listed the tariff on broomcorn imports, Mexico became the principle supplied 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.

News, Pages 11 on 09/23/2009

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