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Plant fanatics climb up trees hunting for 'witch's brooms'

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Mike Heim
Mike Heim of Hayward, Wis., shows off a witch's broom collected on Jan. 12, 2013, in the woods north of Duluth. The brooms are genetic mutations in which the needles only grow at 1/10th to 1/20th the rate of growth of the trees they come from.
MPR photo/Dan Kraker

On a frigid January morning, Rich Larson scales a big tamarack tree, breaking off branches as he climbs towards his target.

About 30 feet high, as the wind swirls around him, Larson, 59, spots what he's looking for: a small, tightly woven mass of branches called a "witch's broom" — the genetic source of many landscape plants and shrubs sold at nurseries.

"Hey I'm moving around pretty good up here!" he exclaims as the tree swayed back and forth in the wind.

Larson, a nursery manager from Newark, Ohio, is one of nine men who came to northern Minnesota from across the Midwest and as far away as Europe to hunt witch's brooms in mid-January.

After managing to reach the broom and cut it from its branch, he tossed it to the ground where Dennis Hermsen, a nursery owner from Farley, Iowa, grabbed it.

"You don't have to be crazy to do this," Hermsen said, "but it does help!" After inspecting the broom's tiny needles, he explained that they're so crowded together that the twigs look like short braids of evergreen. The dense broom only grows about the length of his fingernail every year. 

Hermsen hopes that by grafting a piece of the broom to an already established stem and roots, he can produce a unique species of dwarf conifer. It will likely only grow to 1/10th or 1/20th the size of its parent tree. In two or three decades it might only be knee-high.

Rich Larson
Rich Larson, 59, reaches out for a witch's broom high in a tamarack tree on Jan. 12, 2013. Larson and others also will shoot brooms down with shotguns, and retrieve them with long pole pruners.
MPR photo/Dan Kraker

Hermsen and Larson are part of a tiny group of plant fanatics — they estimate they number about 200 nationwide —  who traipse through forests collecting witch's brooms. The term, which dates to the Middle Ages, refers to tree mutations made up of dense masses of shoots growing from a single point. They look like balls of twigs woven together and can grow to several feet across. Each is the only one of its kind in the world. They are genetically unique.

They were dubbed "witch's brooms" in Medieval Europe because it was believed witches placed them high in trees, and even rested in them. Farther up the road and deeper into the northern Minnesota woods, the group spots a couple more brooms high in trees. This time, rather than climbing, one of the "hunters" shoots the broom high out of a pine tree with a shotgun, and the others rush to pick up the pieces that fall to the ground. 

Joe Braeu, who organized the weekend broom hunting expedition, quickly dubs this broom "Conehead," because of the profusion of pine cones.

Collectors assign each broom its own name, so no one else can come along, propagate it, and claim it as theirs. Braeu, owner of Edelweiss Nursery outside Duluth, has high hopes for this broom.

Joe Braeu
Joe Braeu, owner of Edelweiss Nursery outside Duluth, Minn., proudly shows off a witch's broom he shot from high up a tree in the forest north of Duluth. Braeu organized a group of nine broom hunters from across the Midwest and Europe to collect brooms. They found 23 on this day.
MPR photo/Dan Kraker

"Look at the cones on there," he said. "So when they first come out, they'll probably have a little pink color to them, so it would be almost like a Christmas ornament on a tree. So that's an awesome thing, one of a kind!" Braeu traces his interest in horticulture back to his youth in Germany. He and other collectors are driven by this sense of discovery, of finding something no one else has seen before.

The next morning, in Braeu's heated garage, the men gather to divvy up the 23 brooms they harvested.

Each collector will take home a few pieces of each specimen, to try to grow into new plants. The process requires skill, patience, and some luck, said Gary Gee, a nursery owner from Stockbridge, Mich.

"It's a very small percentage of the brooms that ever turn out to be really something," Gee said. "You may grow something for five to seven years, and find out it ends up in the burn pile."

Bill Barger, Gary Gee
Bill Barger of Wadsworth, Ohio, and Gary Gee of Stockbridge, Mich., cut dead wood off a witch's broom on Jan. 13, 2013. They only need a one- or two-inch piece of the broom to graft onto rootstock to propagate a new plant.
MPR photo/Dan Kraker

Many of the men own nurseries, and may eventually sell some plants created from these brooms. But Gee said they do it for fun, and for the camaraderie.

"We'll never get rich at doing it, that's for sure," he said. "Some of these brooms are very expensive by the time we take all the money for gas, hotel rooms, and all this kind of stuff in to them."

Brooms hunters often donate some of their haul to the American Conifer Society, where Gee said gardeners and other plant aficionados will bid up to $500 at the organization's annual auction for particularly unusual shrubs.

Duluth botanist Josh Horky joined the collecting expedition in his wheelchair. It was his first day in the field since he was paralyzed a year ago, when he fell 25 feet trying to retrieve a broom from a tamarack tree.

But that hasn't sapped his enthusiasm for witch's brooms. Even earthbound, Horky is still in the thick of broom hunting. The number of witch's brooms he's discovered and mapped is at 700 and counting.

"Everything's in the sky now for me," Horky said. "Always have my head in the trees."