On Brooms, Kings & Witches

The pea-like seedpods of the Broom shrub readily identify it as part of the Legume (pea & bean) family of plants. Easily grown in British gardens in colours ranging from cream through yellow to burnt oranges and dark reds, it is now a shrub that is considered rather unfashionable. Despite that, it deserves to be reinstated into the flower border for they take up relatively little space and give a good show in late spring. Generally, a tall, narrow plant up to 3m in height, there are a couple of prostrate varieties (of which the most readily available is Cytisus ‘Lydia’) that are perfect for placing on the edge of a raised bed. When not in flower the whippy, green branches form a quiet backdrop to other plants.

Broom watermark

The Wild Broom, Cytisus scoparius

In the wild, broom can sometimes be seen growing prolifically on motorway embankments and is one of the first shrubs to colonise newly-built ones. The golden-yellow flowers are the same colour as gorse, the two often being mistaken for one another. However, unlike gorse with its prickly stems, broom is spineless and soft to touch. In the photograph below and dating from the early 1970s, broom has quickly colonised the top of a newly dug quarry despite not having been seen growing in the area before. The flowers smell strongly of vanilla; when the seed pods have turned black and are fully ripe, they split open with an audible pop.

RAE BLOOM WOODS 1976 watermark

Broom colonising a newly disused quarry

There are two main species of Broom.  If searching for them in garden centres they are often found under their botanical names of Cytisus or Genista.  Centuries ago the Latin name for the shrub was Planta genista and tradition states that this gave rise to the name of the Plantagenet dynasty through Geoffrey V of Anjou’s (born 1113) habit of wearing a sprig of broom flowers in his hat. It was Geoffrey’s son, Henry who in 1154 became Henry II, the first of the Plantagenet kings to rule England.

Henry II Plantagenet

King Henry II of England (Source: Wikipedia)

A source of some confusion is the witches’ broom, a gall, sometimes found growing on birch trees. They have nothing to do with either the shrub broom or with witches and are so called presumably because of their superficial resemblance to the besom brooms that witches are said to fly on. They are actually caused by a variety of different organisms – insect, virus, fungus, bacteria – in the case of birch, usually the cause is fungal. They do not seem to harm the tree.

Witches Brooms watermark

Witches’ Brooms

In folk medicine, the flowers of broom have been used as an ointment to treat gout. According to my old herbal it also prevents rabies and is a cure for dropsy, jaundice, worms, kidney and urine problems. It claims it can also kill headlice. In the southern English county of Sussex, it was believed that just by sweeping the floor with flowering broom branches was enough to kill the head of the house not just the lice. Perhaps, therefore, it maybe best just to admire the floral display from the safety of the motor car when driving!

Seeking Great-Aunt Ba-ba

Some people make a lasting impression on you and in the case of Great-aunt Ba-ba it was just as well for I only met her once as a child when she was very elderly.  Someone of twenty seems ancient to a youngster, as for being ninety, I just couldn’t get over anyone being that old or that much fun.

Gt Aunt Baba (Frances White) 90th bithday about 1965

photo take by me about 1965, which means she would have been born around 1875

Great-aunt Ba-ba was a ‘spinster of the parish’, a description that conjures up a sad and somewhat diminished individual whereas in reality, if she was anything to go by, they were far from that.  Lively and interesting, I adored her instantly but was too young to ask her any questions about her life.  I doubt if I would have been told much anyway for that generation were far too busy living in the present: perhaps the effect of surviving two world wars.

Frances White - auntie baba - and Clara Joyce Shortland

On the left, about 1925

One story I heard many times from my father was of how when he and his brother were sent to stay with her in the school holidays they were allowed to run wild, something that wouldn’t have been tolerated by their strict parents.  This would have been about 1920 and to reach Rudgwick in Sussex from the Thames Valley took the whole day.  Once there they would spend all day running free through the woods and cowslip-ing in the meadows.  On trips to the south coast my father would always make time for a detour to show me his playground and Aunt Ba-ba’s wonderful house. postcard of Greenhurst, nr Rudgwick

about 1918-20

So how did she get her pet name?  I have no idea – I understand that her real name was Frances White – and there is no one now left alive that can answer the question. Perhaps her name was Barbara, or is that too simple an explanation? I had another great aunt that was called ‘Toddles’ so perhaps silly names were just a family thing!

Frances White - auntie baba

1940’s?

I’d always assumed that Frances White was just a family friend for, in days past, it was customary for children to call them aunt or uncle out of respect.  Recently I have discovered another old family photograph – that of Charles William Langston-White and this could be a missing link.  His mother Norah Langston (my first cousin twice removed, whatever that means) married James William White in 1909 – he was born in Sussex.

charles william langston-white, aged 3yrs 3mths

“aged 3yrs 3mths” so taken June 1916

Could Great-aunt Ba-ba have been related to this White family?  I would have thought it probable but, so far, my researches have drawn a blank and I have found no trace of her having even existed in the public record books.  Fortunately I have these few photos of her and my memory to prove she existed.

If there are any enthusiastic genealogists or amateur sleuths reading this I will be grateful if you can find out more.