Snow, Brooms and Squirrels

The Old Worn Corn Broom



A friendly old Corn broom is indispensable for sweeping snow off trees and shrubs in the winter and for freeing frisbees, balls and balloons in the other seasons. Its bristles softened and shortened by time, usually on an angle from all the corner work it has tried to do and the leaning it has experienced, a plain old broom will be gentle on living plant materials. The narrower end allows you to brush off the canopies of trees and the bodies of shrubs without harming them.
Your favorite evergreens (and other above ground plants) will keep their shapes better through the snowy, icy  seasons if you can prevent freshly fallen snow from accumulating too heavily.……

  • The business end of a natural fiber broom is typically made of the upper stalks and tassel stems of Sorghum bicolor (or vulgare). These plants are commonly called ‘Seed Corn’, even though they are not related to our familiar edible Corn at all ( that would be a Zea not a Sorghum). In the growing fields Sorghum’s appearance is somewhat Corn like, just no ears. The appelation ‘Corn Broom’ has become descriptively traditional, and so we use it anyway.
  • Once upon a time, in 1797, Levi Dickenson of Hadley, Massachusetts discovered the fine qualities of these Sorghums, and made a broom for his wife of them. Enthusiasm ensued, and this excellent new material was soon sought after for broom making in general.
  • Throughout the millenia, in the various parts of the world many different kinds of plants were found useful for sweeping . What was utilised depended on what was growing nearby and the local customs. With long, straight and slender stems, the shrubs we colloquially call ‘Brooms’ (Genera Cytisus and Genista) were found suitable, and these and many other kinds of plant materials were pressed into service. With experimentation over time and the passage of knowledge between cultures, however, Sorghums have proved themselves perhaps the most effective of natural materials for the job of sweeping.
  • Until about 1820, Brooms were typically round in form. The branchlets of whichever material was used were usually clustered around a stouter central piece of wood.
  • Since no aspect of the design of tools and furnishings for daily life was overlooked by the Shakers, brooms were taken seriously, along with pincushions and hundreds of other useful things, and improvements were sought.

The Shakers believe that their furnishings were originally designed in heaven, and that the patterns were transmitted to them by angels. Their designs are beautiful and they work extremely well.

  • The Shakers proceeded to redesign broom configurations, flattening out the brush end, and so making this tool easier and more efficient to use in our home grounds, in their estimation. And then there came the angled form, probably also from the angels...
  • This photo by Grace Jeffers shows the way that the de-seeded and dried Sorghums were flattened in the broom presses of the Hancock Shaker community in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. At one time, a great many brooms were made there. The image comes to us by way of  Wilsonart’s  Blog, ‘The Statement’, a highly informative online magazine for Designers.
  • Many of our ‘Corn Brooms’ now come from Mexico, where the appropriate Sorghums also grow very well.
  • Shaker design has provided us with patterns for brand new brooms with either flat or angled working ends. The angled ones are configured that way to do corner sweeping perfectly from the start. Gentled down a bit with floor use for a while, this shape is what you are after for use amongst your trees and shrubs as well as for your corners.
  • At their tops, Sorghum bicolor plants have seed filled tassels from which the seeds themselves must be manually removed when the tasseled ends are dried for broom making.
    A Seed Corn Wreath
  • There is another less universal but very lovely use for those same upper stalks without removing their seeds. The tasseled tops of  Sorghum bicolor, with a foot or two of the stem still attached, make a beautiful wreathing material. The seed laden bunches are tied on to encircle a metal wreath frame in an overlapping sequence. The handsome tassels swirl gracefully, their rich mahogany seeds texturally beautiful against the green tinged khaki of the leaf and stalk matrix. The seeds stay on a long time if noone eats them.
  • When the hard weather is coming, though, I hang the Seed Corn wreath outside on a strong hook so the squirrels can sit or clamber on it comfortably. The hanging place we have chosen is seen from our windows, so every day for weeks we can watch these companions gathering and enjoying our gift.
  • In the right settings squirrels may be rewarding cohabitants. In a profound way it seems meaningful to bear witness to the life their busy families infuse in to the landscape. A visible parallel existence. Though our small personal land can only support a limited population, as concerns any creatures or plants who are living here, I do want them to live happily as long as they can behave compatably.
  • Still outlined in snow after the snow has melted everywhere else, the Squirrel’s twiggy nests high up in the trees seem poignant and eloquent now, as I write from the garden shed in cold January. A new snow is falling today, softening the nest shapes still further.
  • Some years ago my squirrel families discovered pillow batting and fluff. On a neighbor’s moving day one winter, serendipity sent a torn pillow into our yard. I guess that I thought it was just some snow, since I didn’t clean it out of the landscape right away. My squirrels seem to have been experimentally minded, quickly discovering the fine insulating properties of this fluff. When I figured out that it was pillow stuffing and saw that it was being used, I left it there. Every bit gradually disappeared, tucked in as lining in their leaf and twig nests. I know this for sure because, sadly, in a winter gale a few years later, a three foot diameter masterpiece nest, and the 25 foot long ‘home run’ limb leading to it, crashed to the ground. My squirrel was suddenly homeless.
  • The next day I came upon this small Denizen sitting in praying position at the V base of the broken limb, the tattered nest on the ground nearby. Head tucked into chest, eyes closed, he seemed deeply pensive and, I must imagine, sad for the loss of his long beloved cozy place in the tree. The family has returned and rebuilt, but I wonder if they will ever have a nest as special as that one was. Perhaps some pillow stuffing should appear.

Corn Broom Drawing by Racket Shreve

For more information on broom making see :

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  • All written and visual materials on this site are Copyrighted. (C) Ellen Cool 2010 - 2021


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