The Q&A Archives: Harvesting Broom Corn

Question: I have grown a few experimental stalks of broom corn and now I would like to know when and how to harvest it? It is about 10 feet tall and has some red tassel like tops. The wind from hurricane Dennis has begun to blow it over and so I am wondering if I need to cut it now before it is no longer standing.

Answer: Just for fun, I've included a little history, provided by David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, from their Nature Bulletin No. 685, published September 15, 1962:

Back in the late 1700's, Benjamin Franklin found a small seed on a whisk broom that a friend had brought him from France for dusting his beaver hat. Next spring he planted that seed and it grew into a tall corn-like plant with a flowering brush of stiff fibers bearing seeds.

From these more were grown for several years as a garden novelty in Philadelphia. Then, in 1797, a man in Massachusetts who had planted a half acre of it began to make and peddle crude brooms. Broomcorn raising and broom making soon grew into an important industry with skilled workmen producing a greatly improved product. After that, for more than a century, a good broom was one of the American housewife's most prized possessions. No other fiber equals broom-corn for picking up dust and sweeping.

Broom corn is planted in rows and cultivated like ordinary field corn. One of two principal varieties grown is called 'standard and is usually 10 or 12 feet in height. The "dwarf" variety, grown only in the western states, is about half as tall. Both kinds bear a brush of a few dozen fibers up to two feet in length.

Harvesting the crop and preparing it for the broom maker require a great deal of hand labor. It is harvested before the seed matures -- before the fiber becomes brittle. First, a man walks backward between two rows and breaks over the stalks, crisscross, to form what is known as a "table". Next, each brush is cut off just below the crown and piled in handfuls on this table. These are hauled to a machine with whirling, spiked cylinders which knocks off the seed. Then the brush is spread on racks in a drying shed where, after curing for two or three weeks, it is
compressed into bales weighing 350 to 450 pounds. All this must be done carefully to yield good, untangled fiber for use in brooms.

At the factory broomcorn is sorted according to length, color (green is preferred), fineness, and straightness of the fiber. A broom is built up on a winding machine that slowly turns its wooden handle as the brush is added, layer by layer, and bound tight by a wire under tension. After two or three layers of shorter, coarser fibers, the shoulders of the broom are formed by adding brush to opposite sides. Next comes a layer of longer brush, called hurl, pointing the other way. This is folded down over the growing broom, followed by a final covering of hurl.

So, the short answer to your question is: harvest before the fibers become dry and brittle.

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