Stalking the wild broom, by Tamia Marg

There is something deeply satisfying about pulling that solitary broom bobbing with yellow flowers that would have spawned a zillion broom seedlings if you hadn’t been there to pull it. Not only are you eliminating the prolific parents of future generations but you are opening up space in the continuum of habitat for a more native balance to move in. We are not talking here about the removal of those forests of broom that have become entrenched on hillsides all around the East Bay Hills. Those require armies of people with all sorts of weapons and multiple strategies. This venture is the hunt for the sentinels—those lone riders that venture out into undisturbed territory, quiet invaders bringing devastation to the modest areas of native diversity left near our urban jungles. As these bad guys forge ahead, their progeny will spread into the densest native thickets, skewing the balance of habitat for the local denizens. The only things that stop them are deep shade, wetlands—or weed warriors.

The older plants have the advantage of being flagged with sweet smelling bright yellow flowers. This means that you can spot a sentinel plant on a distant hillside between February and April. Getting to one of those lone riders in the midst of an otherwise impenetrable scrubland takes some strategy. This is not a walk in the park. You’ve got to suit up in thick denim pants that will armor you against the spiny native blackberries and thickets of crusty branches. Wearing tall boots means fewer annoying dirt clods and sticks under your arches. Rubberized or leather gloves allow you to use your hands as climbing appendages, part the sea of vegetation, and, of course, pull broom. Your plant identification skills must be honed to know your prey, but also to know your potential nemesis, poison oak.

In contrast to most native shrubs with their web of roots, broom’s long skinny taproot makes them easy to pull. Removing older plants requires the leverage of a weed wrench http:// Carrying a weed wrench into the out back is hard work, but then sometimes it is the only tool that works. You could take along a handsaw, but cutting broom does not guarantee its demise. Rule of thumb is the larger the trunk, the better the chance the broom will never reprout. A 3" diameter stem cut off near the ground is more likely to die than a 1.5" stem, while a half inch stem is guaranteed to resprout the next year with a vigorous flowering topknot of growth and a wickedly tenacious root system.

Two-foot high seedlings come up like butter from the saturated ground after a good rain, but they do not always have the advantage of being flagged with yellow. If you find yourself where these young ones are spreading into a native area and you have an eye for detail, the hunt is on. Scan the ground around you to look for the telltale set of soft rounded leaves. The game is can you see the broom seedling in this picture? Watch for the one hiding behind a native, trying to blend in. Once you’ve got the hang of recognizing them, the work goes quickly and you leave in your wake a purified land, at least for the time being.

A topo map and a compass give you a sense of the watershed you’re exploring, help you understand how the water flows and which slopes are most sunny. While binoculars let you check out the redtail soaring overhead or maybe even a shy thrasher, they also extend your ability to spot the far broom. That distant yellowish plant could be broom, but once you look through your binocs, it might turn out to be just an anemic coyote bush. Walkie-talkies are invaluable when you’re in over-your-head brush and you have lost sight of your prey; a friend sitting on the opposite hill watching you with binocs will be able to guide you into arm’s reach of your yellow-flagged quarry. Plus you can have an audience for the running narrative of your adventure, as well as a ride to pick you up at the end.

Next year there will be more broom seedlings to pull, and it is not until the fourth or fifth year, that you can look back with satisfaction at a piece of land that requires minimal effort to be broomfree. Even though there might be some broom seeds lurking in the soil, waiting for decades to spring forth, you make a huge difference in the health of the land by beginning the eradication now.