At the end of April and beginning of May, shrubs with bright yellow flowers can be spotted blooming along the sides of the roads all over Vancouver Island.
Although these flowers may be pretty, they signify the presence of one of the most invasive weeds in the Pacific Northwest: Scotch broom.
Each year, a team of volunteers—known as Broombusters—works to combat the problem of Scotch broom on Vancouver Island. In 2020, 401 volunteers cut broom for more than 5,000 hours on East Vancouver Island and Powell River. Joanne Sales, Broombusters director, says this is an “impressive” number, considering the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“Because of COVID-19, we are not having publicized community cuts like we did before 2020,” said Sales. “But we do choose areas where we want to cut, and volunteers might show up at the same time, keeping social distancing.”
Scotch broom was introduced to Vancouver Island in the mid-1800s as an ornamental plant. Since then, broom has spread rapidly and densely across the Island, taking over disturbed soil along roads and railways. Broom is a highly invasive weed that crowds out native plants. It is toxic to most animals, and the plant’s caustic oil content makes it highly flammable.
Sales says that the best time to cut Scotch broom is when the yellow flowers are in bloom.
“The energy of the plant is above the ground, which makes it more likely to die when cut,” explained Sales. “If you take out the roots and disturb the soil, seeds will sprout.”
Broombusters was first formed as a grassroots organization in 2006 in response to growing concerns about Scotch broom in Qualicum Beach and Coombs. Over the years, the movement has spread across the Island. Sales says that Port Alberni was one of the first communities to join Broombusters. In 2007, volunteers tackled the hillside beside West Coast General Hospital.
Sue Thomas, one of the Port Alberni organizers, has been involved in Broombusters for around five years. When Thomas first moved into her home in the Alberni Valley, the broom in her yard was more than 16 feet high.
“These are not just pretty little flowers,” she warned.
Last year, volunteers cut at Canal Waterfront Park and at the bottom of Redford Street. In previous years, cuts have taken place at the hospital, the Chamber of Commerce, the SPCA grounds and even at Sproat Lake Provincial Park. So far, the group has had “a pretty good success rate” in terms of the broom not coming back, said Thomas.
This year Broombusters have been working with Ducks Unlimited to plan a large cut at the Somass Estuary.
“We mostly concentrate on roadways and visible areas that people can see,” said Thomas. “We’re really trying to get organized as a group and become more visible. We want to help as many people as possible. The more it gets out of hand, the worse it’s going to be [to cut].”
Juliana McCaig and her husband have been working on the Faber Road area near Sproat Lake for the past four years.
“We’ve had a few friends who have joined us over the years,” she said. “Each year it gets easier.”
This year, McCaig is hoping to push out along Stirling Arm Road, where some recent logging activity took place.
“We want to get to the broom before the seeds get into the new log cut,” she explained.
Although the Alberni Valley Landfill allows volunteers to drop off the cut broom for free, the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District does not have a pick-up program—which means volunteers have to pick up the cut broom and transport it to the landfill themselves.
Sales encourages people who want to cut broom to reach out to Broombusters before they begin cutting so that pick-up of the broom can be arranged. Cut broom left on the side of the road can become a major fire hazard, said Sales. Broombusters will provide loppers and vests, but volunteers are asked to bring their own gloves.
“Everyone is welcome, but anyone interested should get in touch with Broombusters first, before cutting broom,” said Sales. “We want to meet and train any new volunteers. Everyone should watch the videos on our website about how to cut broom effectively.”
Cutting properly is the key to stopping the broom from coming back, said McCaig.
“Do your own yard, and if your neighbour will let you, do their yard as well,” said McCaig. “You start little and keep expanding, and after a few years you can see the results.”