Scotch Broom -June 2007

The Good, the Bad and the Lovely

by: Lucy Apthorp Leske

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Among the first outposts in eastern North America to see dawn and celebrate the apogee of the vernal equinox, Nantucket is also among the last locations in the country to warm up. Surrounded as it is by the cold waters of the North Atlantic, spring temperatures take their time here, so gardens and landscapes only begin to fill with color in May and early June.

A harbinger of summer’s cusp, Scotch broom is one of the brightest flowers in Nantucket’s spring landscape, a joyful and spirited semi-woody shrub that announces its presence with brilliant yellow blooms on green wiry branches and powerful fragrance. The flowers are so attractive and bright they pull bees from miles around and boaters plying the waters of Nantucket Sound can see them from a distance almost as well as they can see range markers in the channel.

Somewhat resistant to deer, hardy, salt- and drought-tolerant, and perfectly designed to withstand high winds, the sturdy broom may be the perfect plant for Nantucket.

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Broom suffers from a split personality that has won the hearts of gardeners and scared the pants off ecologists. What some value as perseverance, others call opportunism. Like all members of the pea family to which it belongs, broom (Cytisus scoparius) is capable of manufacturing its own food from thin air or, to be specific, fixing nitrogen with its roots. Seeds are practically immortal and can survive extreme conditions for 60 years or more. What’s more, broom produces and expels its seed from its capsules at such velocity that a shotgun could not do much better.

Lucy Apthorp Leske is an associate editor of Nantucket Today. She writes a weekly column, “Gardening by the Sea,” for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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