Desert Broom (Baccharis sarothroides) grows in the desert, desert grassland, and chaparral from 1000 to 5000 feet elevation in Arizona, California, Sonora, and Baja California.
According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM):
“Desert broom is a vertical, evergreen, densely-branched shrub usually 3 to 6 feet tall (0.9-1.8 m), occasionally to 10 feet (3 m). The many fine twigs are green; the tiny, linear leaves are deciduous during dry periods. The plants are dioecious (that is, each individual plant bears only “male” or “female” flowers) and blooms in the fall. The wind-dispersed, white-tasseled seeds are produced by the female plants in such abundance that the plants and nearby ground appear to be snow-covered.”
See Delange’s “Arizona Wild flowers” for some excellent photos of the whole plant and closeup photos of the male and female flowers.
Desert broom flowers attract many butterflies and other insects. However, many people are allergic to the pollen. ASDM characterizes Desert broom as a “pioneer plant” that does well in disturbed soil. It therefore inhabits roadsides, washes, and abandoned fields. It can be used in the garden to provide shade to other plants. However, Desert broom, once established, can be very difficult to get rid of because of its long, tough roots.
The resinous leaves and stems are rarely eaten, except by jackrabbits during droughts when little else is available.
Desert broom is so-called because the native people of the southwest tied leafy branches together for use as a broom. They also made arrows from the larger branches.
A technical paper on the medicinal uses of the several Baccharis species is available from the Department of Pharmacology, University Complutense, Avda, Madrid, Spain here: http://www.arkat-usa.org/get-file/19602/ The paper also contains directions for preparing infusions and decoctions from the plant.
This paper notes that Baccharis “is an important source of natural medicinal products” because of its “anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial and antifungal properties.” It also notes that seeds were steeped and used as tea-like drinks for refreshment. Care should be taken, however, because some members of the Baccharis genus are toxic.
The Seri Indians made a decoction by cooking the twigs. This tea was used to treat colds, sinus headache, and as a rub for sore muscles. [Felger, R. S. and M. B. Moser, 1985, People of the Desert and Sea. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ] Such decoctions were used also to treat coughs and stomach aches.
Some studies also show that such decoctions may lower cholesterol. Desert broom also contains apigenin, a chemical which binds to the same brain receptor sites that Valium does, but caution is advised because of possible negative side effects..[Karch, S. B. 1999. The Consumer’s Guide to Herbal Medicine. Advanced Research Press, New York, NY.]
Desert broom is a useful medicinal plant to some and a noxious weed to others.
See my ADI articles on other desert plants: