Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, a few years ago my husband and I went on holiday to Jersey. The weather was glorious, and one of my strongest memories is of the tropical coconut scent of the waist-high gorse that grew on the clifftops, and the sound of the ripe seedpods popping. So imagine my surprise at finding a small cluster of plants in flower on a rainy day in north London. Although there is a saying that ‘when the gorse is in flower, kissing’s in season’ I suspected that the plants would surely take a break in December, but no. And what a joy it is to see those butter-yellow flowers speckled with raindrops among all the mud and dying foliage of other, less enterprising plants.
Common gorse is a member of the Fabaceae or pea family, and like all members of its family helps to fix nitrogen in the soil and so to improve fertility. As a long-living, hardy, native plant, it has been used for a variety of purposes. Some relate to its prickliness – it can make a very effective hedge, spiky and long-lasting. Washing can be hung out to dry on gorse bushes, the spikes acting as pegs. Chopped gorse has been used as a mulch over germinating peas and beans to deter pigeons and mice. And the impenetrable thickets that the plant forms are great habitat for all manner of small mammals and nesting birds.
Despite its coarseness and abundance of spines , gorse has been used as food for cattle and horses, especially in north Wales where other sources of fodder may have been hard to come by. The plants are usually bruised in gorse-mills to soften them before being fed to the livestock. Humans have eaten gorse too – the pickled buds can be used like capers, and the flowers can be added to vodka or gin to flavour the spirit.
Pliny stated that branches of gorse could be placed in a stream in order to capture any particles of gold in the water, an ancient version of gold-panning.
Gorse has also had a long association with fire. It was used as firewood, particularly for baking, and was so popular that bye-laws were instituted to ensure that not too much was taken – Richard Mabey reports that under the 1820 Enclosure Act, the parishioners of Cumnor Hurst were allowed to harvest as much gorse ‘as they could carry on their backs’. In spite of its tough nature, gorse is not completely frost-hardy, and a particularly vicious winter can put paid to great tracts of the plant on open ground. It was therefore necessary to husband it as a resource, and to take only what was needed. Sustainability is not a new idea at all, but for most of the history of mankind has been seen as an obvious necessity. It’s only recently that we seem to have developed the idea that natural resources are never-ending.
Once burned, the ashes from gorse were used as an excellent fertilizer, or mixed with clay to form soap.
Gorse is normally a plant of open grassland (the very word ‘gorse’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘gorst’, meaning wasteland) and as such is subject to fires caused either accidentally (by lightning strike) or by deliberately in order to clear the land of old gorse bushes. As a fire-climax plant, gorse is adapted to these occurrences, and responds by putting out new green shoots, which can be used as softer fodder. In the right conditions, a single gorse bush can live for over 30 years.
In spite of its long flowering season, gorse has always been associated with the spring, and with the return of the sun. Gorse fires were set on the hillsides in at spring equinox, and burning brands of the plant were carried around the cattle herds to ensure their good health for the following year. In Ireland, gorse was said to protect against witches, and it was also said that if you wore a sprig of gorse you would never stumble. In Scotland, it is said that Edinburgh will fall if the gorse does not come into flower. In Dorset and Somerset, however, it was unlucky to bring a sprig of the plant indoors, as if you did so a coffin was sure to follow shortly in the opposite direction. It is the sure sign of a plant that has been our companion for a long time that such a variety of beliefs has sprung up.
For me, gorse means heat, and skylarks singing, and a lizard skittering across a sandy path. It was not something that I expected to see today, one of those Sundays when the sun barely seems to get above the horizon before it sinks down again, exhausted. But what a joy it was to see those golden buds, and to remember that summer afternoon, something that I hadn’t thought about for years. My personal history seems to be written in plants and animals, each of them a talisman of a time and place.
Resources used in this post:
Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey – the best compendium of plant lore every published in my opinion. Endlessly interesting.
The Plant Lives website by Sue Eland – a gathering together of worldwide plantlore. Especially useful where plants have become naturalised outside the UK, and are being used by local people
The A Modern Herbal website – all manner of medicinal, culinary and other uses for British plants.