By whichever name you know it, this prickly shrub smothered in sunshine-yellow blossom is an iconic plant of commonland and rough open spaces, and wherever it grows in quantity it is one of our great landscape plants.
“When gorse is in blossom kissing’s in season” or “when furze is out of bloom, kissing’s out of fashion” is a traditional saying that once would have been know, one way or the other, throughout Britain and Ireland. Either way, it is another way of saying that the plant can be found flowering to some extent in all months of the year. This is because, with the exception of Scotland, most gorse colonies are a mixture of common gorse – ulex europaea (in flower chiefly from January to June, though often sporadically throughout the year) and either western gorse (July to November) or, in the south and east of England, dwarf gorse (also July to November), so the the likelihood is that at least one species will be in flower.
Gorse is a most sensory plant – the flowers smell deliciously of creamy coconut and the seed pods’ pop and crackle in hot sunshine, but it’s so well protected by those potent spines it’s best admired from a respectful distance.
Common name: Gorse, furze or whin Scientific name: Ulex Europaea Welsh name:Eithinen Ffrengig: Family group: Fabaceae
Common gorse is the only species native to much of western Europe, where it grows in sunny sites, usually on dry, sandy soils. It is also the largest species, reaching 2–3 metres (7–10 ft) in height.
The 15-20mm long flowers, with their wonderful aroma of coconut, are borne on stems of spiny bluish-green spikes. The leaves have been modified over centuries into rigid and furrowed thorns which withstand the harsh conditions of winters at higher altitudes, making the entire bush one mass of prickles and spines. In North Wales these shrubs form hedgerows around our fields, they line our country roads and particularly from February to May, when the flowers are their most abundant, they are a spectacular sight.
Whether gorse flowers supply nectar is a subject of debate, although the opinion of careful observers is that they do at certain times. However, it is for pollen that the plant is mainly of value to Beekeepers.This is produced in abundance and is bright yellow or orange in colour, assuming the darker or duller shade in the bees’ pollen baskets, but bees commonly forsake gorse once other flowers become available.
The visual intensity of a gorse-dominated heath or common can be dramatic. The pioneering naturalist Carl Linnaeus saw gorse in bloom on London’s Putney Heath whilst on a visit to England. He was reported to have fallen to his knees and wept for joy when he beheld the sight of the heath adorned with its fine yellow flowers. He had tried unsuccessfully to grow gorse in his greenhouse in Uppsala in Sweden, but the winters proved too cold.
The popping, or crackling sound of the gorse plants’ seed pods, as they split to scatter their seeds, is a familiar sound on hot summer days.
Seed dispersal: Most gorse seeds fall directly beneath the parent plant, although some are dispersed through the action of the dehiscent pods, which can eject seeds up to 16 feet (5 m) from the parent plant.Gorse seed dispersal over intermediate distances may be attributable to insects, animals, birds and possibly wind gusts. Most fascinatingly though, is the plant’s interaction with ants.
Ant dispersal of gorse seeds
Myrmecochory (sometimes “Myrmechory“); from Greek myrmeco-: “ant’s” + -chory: “dispersal”) is seed dispersal by ants, an ecologically significant ant-plant interaction with worldwide distribution.
Gorse is known to be a myrmechochorous plant, meaning that ants assist seed dispersal. The following is an extract from research by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology:
Dwarf gorse Ulex minor seeds have a small food body, called an elaiosome, which attracts ants of certain species. These ants pick up the seed and take it back to the nest, where the elaiosome is removed and eaten and the seed is then discarded. As well as dispersing the seed, this behaviour may place the seed in improved conditions for germination and seedling establishment. Our work on this system has involved observing and measuring dispersal in the field and studying the chemical ecology of the ant-seed interaction. The latter has shown for the first time that the elaiosome produces a chemical which attracts ants from a distance. http://www.ceh.ac.uk/index.html
Patches of gorse are important in both heath and coastal areas, although it may be desirable to control the extent of spread where it excludes other species.
Gorse is a valuable plant for wildlife, providing dense thorny cover ideal for protecting birds’ nesting and feeding sites, and providing shelter for birds and other animals moving through the countryside. In Britain, France and Ireland, it is particularly noted for supporting Dartford Warbler (Sylvia undata), Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola), Linnet () and Yellowhammer () and the common name of the Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) attests to its close association with gorse. The flowers are eaten by some species of moths.
Gorse provides important habitat for other animals and plants too, including uncommon ones such as dodder, a ‘hemi-parasite’ that grows on gorse foliage. Reptiles such as common lizard, sand lizard, smooth snake, and adder, all favour gorse-dominated environments.
In Wales, once Shelduck have paired in the spring they move away from water to the hills, where they search out a large rabbit hole for a nest.
Often these lie beneath old gorse bushes – hence the shelduck’s Welsh name, Hwyaden yr Eithin: the furze or gorse duck.
“Wild Gorse: history, conservation, and management
“It is clear that gorse and its relatives were widely used and often deliberately cultivated until very recently. Now however, the furze fields and the gorse commons lie neglected and abandoned a forgotten artefact of our cultural history. As the plants degenerate through age and a lack of management, natural capacity for regeneration declines.” Ian D. Rotherham, Sheffield Hallam University.
TRADITIONAL USES OF GORSE
Gorse has a long history of use in the areas of the country where it grows most prolifically and in many areas it was deliberately cultivated as a crop for animal food and as fuel.
Many places up and down the country refer to the presence of gorse. On Exmoor, where the plant is known locally as furze, it gave rise to Furzebury Brake and Furzehill Common. Most hill farms have their furze break, i.e. gorse-covered hill. In Wales, where place names in Welsh are made up of elements, any place name containing ‘eithin’, the Welsh word for gorse will indicate the plant’s significance there.
The importance of gorse for heating ovens for baking is a tradition widely recorded across Britain. The gorse burns rapidly and hot, quickly raising the temperature of the oven to a suitably high temperature. Importantly the gorse produces very little ash, and this is raked out as the bread is placed into the oven. For bread in early times, it was the custom to cut off the base and the four side-crusts to remove the ash that became embedded in the bread.
On commonland there were quite strict rules about when and how much gorse could be cut for fuel: ‘In Cumnor, Oxfordshire, under the 1820 Enclosure Award, parishioners had the right to go to Cumnor Hurst to cut gorse and broom (for burning, often in bread ovens due to the fierce heat) but they were allowed only as much as they could carry on their backs.’
Gorse is highly nutritious; hence its armament of sharp prickles to ward off herbivores. The leaves are generally only eaten in situ in the spring when young and tender. However, the plant was grown to be cut and crushed for winter fodder for horses and cattle. It was used particularly in areas with extensive heath and common, but was also deliberately seeded into areas as a crop to be harvested. In Wales, special mills were constructed to grind down the cut gorse into a moss-like consistency.
‘In Wales many farmers remember gorse mills, and how important a food gorse was, especially for horses. Fields were devoted to growing gorse as a crop, and at least one smallholder in Anglesey made his living cutting gorse for other farmers, at five shillings an acre.” Flora Brittanica, Richard Mabey
There is a reconstructed Gorse Mill at St. Fagans National History Museum, near Cardiff. I surely passed it by on the several occasions I have visited this genuinely fascinating place, usually in the rain, both with my own children and whilst accompanying parties of small schoolchildren. I can’t say that I remember it, but that was a good few years ago.
A small, stone-built mill (built mid-1840s) that was used to prepare gorse for feeding to horses. From the 18th century to the end of the Second World War, most Welsh farmers used horses to carry out the work of the farm. Because of this it was important to feed horses well, and gorse was an important part of their diet. It was specially grown on a large scale but had to be bruised or crushed to make it fit to eat.
The gorse crushing machine, with heavy metal spikes fixed to the axle, was located on the ground floor and was driven directly off the waterwheel. By about 1850, however, most such mills had been replaced by lighter and cheaper hand-operated or oil-powered machines.
Folk interviewed by Richard Mabey for his Flora Britannica recalled the following uses for gorse:
‘Gorse & heather were bound together to make besom brooms, which were then tied with the same jute string used for binding straw bales.’ (Whitby)
“ Some local gardeners place chopped gorse or “fuzz” over germinating or emerging peas to deter mice and pigeons” (Plymouth, also Ashridge).
The ashes of burned Gorse are rich in alkali, and they were formerly sometimes used for washing, either in the form of a solution or lye, or mixed with clay and made into balls, as a substitute for soap.
Another association with washing is that many people used to like to grow a few Gorse bushes near their homesteads, so they could lay their washing on the thorny branches without fear of it blowing away.
Gorse flowers were also used to make wine & a yellow dye.
Gorse Dye Recipe from “A Diary of a West Cork Dyer” by Kate Jepson
16oz Gorse petals, 8 oz wool, 2oz alum, ½ cream of tartar
Soak the petals for two hours. While petals are soaking mordant the wool the same way as for the onionskin dyebath, and allow to cool. Bring petals to simmering point over one hour, and simmer for one hour, drain off liquor and add mordanted wool, bring to simmering and simmer for one hour without letting the dyepan boil. Rinse wool well in water until it runs clear, wash and hang to dry in an airy place. (yellows)
Gorse in popular culture
If you love the scent of gorse as much as I do, you may be interested to know that the monks of Caldy Island (an isle just off the coast near Tenby in South Pembrokeshire), who are reknowned worldwide for producing the very best lavender perfume, also produce a perfume from gorse flowers called ‘Island Gorse’. (To me it doesn’t smell exactly like the flowers do in the wild, somehow it’s not quite coconutty enough (sorry, it must be the aromatherapist in me) but I love it and wear it anyway.)
There are numerous references to Gorse in modern literature from the misadventures of Winnie the Pooh to Lord of the Rings, but most evocatively in Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native. When Clym is partially blinded through excessive reading, he becomes a furze-cutter on Egdon Heath, much to the dismay of his wife, Eustacia. The timeless, gorse-covered heath is described in each season of the novel’s year-and-a-day timeline and becomes symbolic of the greater nature of mankind.
George Meredith (1828–1909) caught the essence of the plant in the great gorse stanza in ‘Juggling Jerry’, where he described an old man relishing familiar scenes and scents:
Yonder came smell of the gorse, so nutty,
Gold-like and warm; it’s the prime of May.
Better than mortar, brick and putty,
Is God’s house on a blowing day.
Lean me more up on the mound; now I feel it;
All the old heath-smells! Ain’t it strange?
There’s the world laughing, as if to conceal it,
But he’s by us, juggling the change.
From more recent times, I love this report:
Rescued – after two days in gorse bush
• Martin Wainwright, The Guardian -Wednesday 10 August 2005 00.05 BST
An RAF helicopter was scrambled early yesterday to rescue a man who had been stuck in a gorse bush for two days. Winchman Colin Yorke was lowered through thorns into a small opening in the bush on a Yorkshire sea cliff, to attach a cable to the man, who was suffering from hypothermia. He had failed to catch anyone’s attention until shortly before dawn yesterday, after tumbling into the bush on Sunday morning. North Yorkshire police said he managed to alert a woman out on an early walk by repeatedly clicking his cigarette lighter.
A North Yorkshire police spokesman said they received a call at 3.50am on Tuesday.
“The lady who called said he had been there for several hours, but could not give a reason as to why he could not get out,” the spokesman said.
Sergeant Yorke said that the curious operation was “certainly one of our stranger rescues”. His helicopter was dispatched from RAF Leconfield near Beverley, in east Yorkshire, after coastguards and fire officers decided that winching was the safest way out.
“The patch of gorse he was in was 10 feet deep,” said Sgt Yorke, 38, who has been in the RAF for 21 years. “We’ve no idea how he got there. He was right in the middle of the gorse. When we arrived we could just see this hand poking out above the top of the bush. It was like he had been dropped there by a spaceship.”
The man has not been named but is 32 and was described as “a well-known local character” from Hunmanby, near Primrose Valley on the edge of Filey, where he got stuck. Sgt Yorke said: “He had no idea how he got there but he had apparently been out on Saturday night consuming various substances.”
The man was taken to Scarborough hospital and treated for hypothermia and dehydration after telling the helicopter crew that he had no feeling from the waist down. Sgt Yorke said: “He was out if it, really.”
Coastguards and police are looking for a mountain bike which the man recalls riding, and which may have catapulted him in the dark into the middle of the bush.