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Wild wanders with Fiona Hall: Gorse and the smell of paradise

In the latest of our 'Wild Wanders' guide series, our Biodiversity Consultant Fiona Hall shares her thoughts on one of our most distinctive and valuable wild plants - gorse.

Gorse is a bushy, woody, dense plant, packed full of prickles and buttery yellow flowers. It can grow up to three metres in height, and flowers primarily between January and June, although some flowers can usually be spotted at any time of year.

Gorse is a common species, found all over the UK. Although it’s often associated with wild open hillsides, it can also be found on coasts, in woodlands and on the edges of fields.

Where I live in Angus, we are lucky enough to have gorse growing all around us. It blooms next to the beach, climbs the slopes of our local park and creates bursts of colour along the top of the cliffs.

The scent of summer days

Gorse is distinctive-looking (the only other wild plant you might mistake it for is broom) but one of the most striking features of gorse is actually its smell. For a plant that does so well in colder climates, it has a surprisingly tropical scent!

Get close to the yellow flowers (without being poked in the nose by a spiky branch) and breathe in the heady tones of coconut and vanilla. To me, it smells like a particular brand of sun cream, and reminds me of my holidays.

Popping power

Gorse is a member of the pea family, so it forms seed pods after the flowers have died back. In warm weather these pods dry out, and eventually each pod will twist and split and shoot its seeds out. Stand quietly by gorse on a hot day and you might hear them crackling and popping in the sunlight.

The cast seeds tend to land relatively close to the parent bush, often under its branches. However, gorse has another trick up its sleeve when it comes to seed dispersal.

Gorse is known to be a myrmecochorous plant. This means that it has a special relationship with ants. The ants collect the seedy snacks and take them back to their nests.

They eat what they want, then leave the rest of the seeds in their nests - ideal spots for them to germinate, and far further than they could get using their popping power alone.

Gorse for wildlife

Gorse provides food and shelter for many wild creatures. Flowering almost all year round, it’s a valuable early source of pollen in winter and early spring, when bees and other insects struggle to find enough food.

The dense, thorny branches of gorse bushes provide shelter and safe nesting sites for birds. In some regions of the UK, birds like the Dartford warbler are completely dependent on the habitat that gorse thickets provide.

The common shelduck often leaves the beach in search of rabbit burrows to nest in, and some travel miles inland to search of gorse bushes with rabbit burrows at their base.

These allow easy access for a large bird, being quite bare underneath but with complete thorny protection. In Wales, the shelduck is known as the Hwyaden yr eithin - the furze or gorse duck.

How can we use gorse?

In the past, gorse flowers have been used in the treatment of jaundice, scarlet fever, diarrhoea and kidney stones. I have also come across mentions of the seeds being soaked and used as a flea repellent.

The flowers are edible in small quantities - they just taste like grass to me, with no distinctive flavour, but look beautiful in salads.

Grilled savoy cabbage and gorse salad recipe

Gorse flowers can also be used to make gorse wine and cordial, which many foragers enjoy.

How to make gorse wine
How to make gorse cordial

The flowers from gorse can also be used to dye white wool, cotton or other material a deep orange-brown colour.

Traditionally, gorse branches were regularly collected from common land to use as fuel for firing bread ovens, to make floor and chimney brushes, and as feed for livestock (the spines were crushed in mills first, before feeding to animals). Straight stems of gorse make excellent walking sticks.

The ashes of burned gorse are very alkaline, and were sometimes used for washing, either as a watery solution, or mixed with clay and turned into a soap substitute.

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 in literature and folklore

Gorse makes a dramatic visual impact on an area, rolling out as a yellow carpet of colour across a landscape.

It has many different names in literature and folklore - furze, whin, Irish gorse, whinstone, green weed, dyer`s broom, woodwaxen, and dye weed being just a few.

According to folklore, you should only kiss your beloved when the gorse is in flower.

The good news is, gorse is in bloom pretty much all year round...

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