During last summer’s heat dome, Robbin Whachell was powering up the Coquitlam Crunch when she heard some popping noises off-trail.
The culprit was an invasive species called Scotch broom that had been multiplying near the trail for a few years.
“The pods were maturing and just popping open in the sun,” she says. “Seeds go flying.”
She took a video and posted it to her social media. That’s when a friend from Vancouver Island suggested she check out a non-profit group dedicated to ridding the island of it.
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The pod people
Many people on Vancouver Island are already familiar with the woody weed, largely thanks to BroomBusters. The weed’s yellow flowers bloom in the spring and go to seed soon after with heat helping release the seeds into the environment—that popping that Whachell heard on her Crunch.
It’s an aggressive plant that will crowd out native species wherever it grows. Scotch broom likes the sun, so it’s common to find it in disturbed areas like cut blocks, along forest service roads, highways and railways. It’s also found in power line corridors, like the Crunch’s location.
Not only does it spread quickly, it’s toxic to wildlife, an allergen to humans, and changes soil chemistry. The plant is also highly flammable during its pod stage.
“Once it stops blooming and when it goes to seed, the pods start looking really brown and they get very dry and that’s why they pop open,” says Whachell. “It becomes a fire hazard in the late summer months.”
One plant can produce up to 18,000 seeds, says Whachell, and the seeds can remain viable in the soil for more than three decades.
Busting makes me feel good
That’s why broom busting — the group’s catchy name for cutting back the weed — is best done during the plant’s flowering stage, usually from mid-April to June. It’s best not to disturb the soil; dormant seeds sprout when exposed to sunlight.
Volunteers cut the plant down close to the ground at its base, leaving the boom to die in the summer’s dry heat.
Whachell is involved with other invasive species projects in the community and connected with the founder of Broombusters to find out how to tackle the plant. The organization has recruited many volunteers who dedicate time each spring to the plant’s eradication. Last year, about 600 volunteers spent more than 7,000 hours battling broom across the island.
She applied for a small neighbourhood grant to start a Coquitlam chapter of BroomBusters and started talking to the City of Coquitlam. Whachell and city employees worked together to identify some areas that could benefit from broom busting. The first of those was Glen Park, where volunteers removed the plant in a few hours on Earth Day.
The next broom busting event is set for Coquitlam Crunch on May 7 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. with the final event of the year scheduled for May 15 at Mundy Park east.
Before cutting scotch broom, it’s important to arrange for its disposal. The City of Coquitlam will be taking care of the piles post cut.
Whachell, the project lead for the local chapter, says Coquitlam is the first area in greater Vancouver to be broom busting.
The events are only two hours, but if you plan to volunteer, Whachell suggests dressing comfortably. “Expect to get at least your pants dirty if you’re kneeling down to cut broom,” she says. You will also want to bring your own gloves, have good footwear and bring some water.
A bit of history
Scotch broom first arrived on Vancouver Island in 1850 with Captain Walter Grant. He planted a few seeds on the south island near what we know as Sooke today and the plant has since spread all over Vancouver Island and the Pacific Northwest. The invasive species disturbs areas like roadsides, railways, along forestry roads, power line corridors and can quickly take over an area.