Witches have been leaving their brooms in my yard for some time now, but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to recognize them for what they are.
Witches’ brooms are not uncommon in coniferous forests across North America. Here in Nova Scotia, they’re often found among the balsam firs. A forest novelty, they look like mutant branches on otherwise normal-looking trees.
From a distance, they appear as a ball mass of twigs. In winter, they’re bare of needles and look especially gnarly. On large trees, they can measure several feet in diameter.
In spring, witches’ brooms grow nutritious shoots that are eaten by grouse and porcupines. The new needles are a pale yellowish green and grow in a spiral pattern around the twigs in a manner that’s different from the tree’s other branches. These needles dry up and die in the fall.
The broom is actually a fungus (Melampsorella caryophyllacearum Schröter) that depends on infection of alternate hosts for survival. In my yard, the spores grow on the needles of the fir tree in the spring and are picked up by chickweed that also grows nearby. Later, the fungus on the chickweed passes its spores back to the firs.
Witches’ brooms aren’t welcome on Christmas tree farms where they disfigure trees and weaken them for other diseases to take hold.
In the wild, large witches’ brooms are sometimes used as a foundation for dreys (squirrels’ nests). Northern flying squirrels and red squirrels are both known to make use of them for this purpose. High above the ground in the canopy of the forest, they’re sometimes also used as a base for the nests of birds of prey.
It’s funny how what man sees as messy and an eyesore in nature, wildlife employs for both food and habitat. Perhaps we should get our vision checked.
This past December, a friend was delighted to find a small witch’s broom in the Christmas tree she purchased on a tree lot. Though the seller was eager to cut it off for her, she believed it added something magical to the tree.
For more information on the Yellow Witches’ Broom in Nova Scotia, see here.