Updated: Feb 22, 2022
About two decades ago, when my plant identification was limited to what my family had grown in our garden, and some of the plants and trees I grew up around in Southern California, I met a plant I already knew.
My then boyfriend, now husband, and I were driving along highway 154, San Marcos Pass. It is the mountain highway between Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Valley. I'd been on that road many times. This occasion must have been late Spring/early Summer because as we drove, all these bright yellow flowers we were passing kept calling to me. “What are those” I asked. We had the windows down, I smelled something sweet. “Is that aroma the yellow flowers?!” We stopped at the side of the road and yes, the amazing aroma was coming from the yellow flowers that had grabbed my attention. “What IS that plant?!” I kept asking.
Has that happened to you? You see a plant, touch and smell them, and a rush of familiar comes over your body. You KNOW this plant, and maybe, not able to understand how.
Now I recognize this as ancestral memory, but at the time I didn’t know that was happening. It has occurred countless times since, but this occasion is such a clear memory.
I received the answer to my question years later. I learned it is Broom (French/Scotch/Spanish Broom) and is native to the Mediterranean, Europe, Africa, the Canary Islands, India and southwest Asia. They are members of the tribe of trees in the Fabaceae family of Genisteae, and grows all over the foothills where I live in Oakland and blooms in early spring to early summer as a non-native invasive plant here in California and all over Turtle Island AKA North America.
Unlike our own magical native Genisteae, Lupine, the non-native broom crowds native plants and is considered a wild fire hazard here in California. According to The Forest Service, “rapid growth of broom leads to a rapid increase in fuel accumulation, greatly increasing the danger of fire."
When I realized who the plant is who had called out to me that day decades earlier, I looked into why they were so familiar to me and here is the answer: My ancestors in Europe and the Mediterranean were in relationship with this plant for time immemorial, especially in my grandparent's region of Calabria, Southern Italy.
The many plants known as Genisteae are named broom because they were used to- you guessed it- make brooms all over Europe and the Mediterranean. Ginestra is the name of the plant in Italian, also the word in Italian for broom.
Ginestra is made into yarn, rope, thread and is a gorgeous yellow dye.
Romans used Ginestra to make sails for their ships. It was also used as the main fiber woven into bags that held and carried wheat.
Contrasted with the invasive status in North America, in Italy where it is native, Ginestra is invaluable for sustaining ecosystems, especially in preventing erosion around rocky edges.
Sadly, the ancient and once rich industry around Ginestra textiles in Italy has become replaced by the production of synthetic materials. There are still people holding down these traditions, but as I write this, the knowledge is held by few. There are annual Festa della Ginestra celebrated in Ischia and Calabria and that makes my heart happy.
This time of year, the ginestra begins to bloom here where I live. I feel a bittersweet flutter in my heart when I see the bright yellow flowers.
Below, a photo from last spring:
Ginestra in the Oakland hills.
There is so much beauty and abundance to learn from this plant ancestor.
If you want to dive deeper with Ginestra and all the magic they hold as perfume, medicine, and in Italian culture, here are some places to begin:
Flower Essence info from FES
Known as the oldest pharmacy in the world, the magical Santa Maria Novella
apothecary and parfumerie in Firenze makes a Acqua di Colonia Ginestra