The Gorse of True Love
Gorse (Ulex) is a symbol of love and fertility and there is an old saying that goes, “when the gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season”.
But you will be delighted to hear that it is usually in bloom somewhere!
For the first six months of the year, common gorse (Ulex Europaeus) produces yellow flowers, followed by its close relatives Western Gorse (Ulex Gallii) and Dwarf Furze (Ulex Minor), which can produce flowers for the remainder of the year.
Gorse, also known as furze or whin, is a genus of flowering plants in the family Fabaceae and a sweet scented, yellow flowered, spiny evergreen shrub. The fruit is a dark purplish-brown pod containing two to three small shiny hard seeds, which are ejected when the pod splits open in hot weather. The genus comprises about twenty species of thorny evergreen shrubs in the subfamily Faboideae of the pea family Fabaceae. The species are native to parts of western Europe and northwest Africa, with the majority of species in Iberia.
The most widely familiar species is common gorse, the only species native to much of western Europe, where it grows in all kinds of habitats, from heaths and coastal grasslands, to towns and gardens. It does particularly love a sunny site (don’t we all), usually on dry, sandy soils. It is also the largest species, reaching 2–3 metres in height; Western Gorse can grow to 8–16 inches and is characteristic of highly exposed Atlantic coastal heathland and montane habitats. In the eastern part of Great Britain, dwarf furze replaces western gorse, growing to around 12 inches in height. Like other members of the pea family, Gorse has nitrogen-fixing bacteria on its roots, so it can live in areas of poor soil quality.
Compact gorse is ideal for a range of nesting heathland, downland and farmland birds, including the Dartford warbler, Stonechat, Linnet and Yellowhammer. The dense structure also provides important refuge for these birds in harsh weather and is essential for the survival of Dartford warblers in winter.
With the arrival of spring, bumble bee queens gradually wake up from hibernation to start a colony on their own. The success of a new bumble bee nest, depends on the queen finding food quickly to have the strength to build a nest and lay eggs. Gorse’s bright yellow, coconut-perfumed flowers produce little nectar, but its early spring blooms can be a life saver to these queens; and to honeybees as well, who have a hard time finding food at this time of the year. Look out for orange/brown pollen loads.
If you can, it is worth watching the honeybees working the Gorse, because the flower is specially designed to make best use of the bees for pollination. The Gorse flowers each have a keel (lower part) and a banner (upper part). The banner is a brightly coloured flag to lure insects. The keel is the boat shaped lower part which offers itself as an insect landing pad. The first bee to land on a freshly opened flower triggers the keel to burst apart, releasing the spring-loaded reproductive paraphernalia, which shoots forth like a boxing glove on a spring. The unsuspecting bee is hoisted into the air and a bunch of stamens, like a paintbrush, dusts its abdomen with pollen. At the same time, the style (female bit), jabs the bee in the belly and picks up gorse pollen from a previous floral heist.
A few Gorse facts:
- The flowers have a distinctive coconut smell, however how strong they smell varies greatly from person to person.
- Before the Industrial Revolution, Gorse was used as fuel for firing bread ovens and kilns
- It was also used as a fodder for livestock
- Gorse was bound to make floor and chimney brushes
- It was used as a colourant for painting Easter eggs
- Gorse was voted as the county flower of Belfast
Gorse has also traditionally been used in country wine making and to flavour Irish whiskey and beer. Several British contemporary and classic style gins use Gorse petals as a botanical.
You could make a cordial with Gorse:
- 1 pint Gorse flowers
- 1 pint water
- 250g sugar
- 1 orange juice and zest
- 1 lemon (unwaxed) juice and zest
Make a gorse-flavoured syrup by putting your gorse flowers in a saucepan, along with the water, sugar, orange and lemon juice and zest. Bring to the boil, stirring continuously. When all the sugar has dissolved, remove from the heat and leave the flowers to steep. When cooled, sieve the syrup to remove the flowers.
Or, you can make a gorse-infused spirit, by simply infusing a handful of fresh gorse flowers in vodka or white rum for a couple of days, strain and add a little sugar to taste. Cheers!