|Ulex europaeus catching my eye in the morning sunlight
‘It’s just the sort of place,’ he explained, ‘for an Ambush.’
‘What sort of bush?’ whispered Pooh to Piglet. ‘A gorse-bush?’
‘My Dear Pooh,’ said Owl in his superior way. ‘Don’t you know what an Ambush is?’
‘Owl,’ said Piglet, looking round at him severely. ‘Pooh’s whisper was a perfectly private whisper and there was no need – ‘
‘An Ambush,’ said Owl,’ is a sort of Surprise.’
‘So is a gorse-bush sometimes,’ said Pooh.
Gorse is not a much-loved plant.
It is unremittingly prickly. In fact it has become a byword for all that is prickly in life. Winnie the Pooh’s wariness on the subject of gorse-bushes came from a close encounter with one after his experiment with the bees failed spectacularly. And whenever the Famous Five needed a really good hiding place, there was always a handy gorse bush around (mysteriously and perhaps a little conveniently always hollow on the inside).
But for the last month my eye has been irresistibly caught every day as I walk the dogs by a vivid flash of yellow in the hedgerow. It stops you in your tracks: the only bright colour in a winter landscape of sepia brown and green.
I think it must have blown in from Exmoor, 40 miles to the west, as we’re on a relatively gentle hillside of hazel hedgerows and sleepy sheep and it’s the only gorse bush for miles.
West Country names belie a relationship between man and gorse bush as old as the hills it grows on. Another common name for the plant is furze, and place names like Furzey Island off the Dorset coast, Furzey Gardens in the New Forest, and the names of numerous farms, roads and houses reveal the plant’s long history here (Furzey is also a common local surname in Somerset).
It was once almost indispensable. The fierce burning properties of gorse made it perfect fuel for fires hot enough to bake bricks: you’re well advised not to grow gorse close to a house as it’s prone to spontaneous combustion in a prolonged drought.
People made it into fearsome besom brooms to sweep chimneys and hung their clothes out to dry on it as it held them in place better than any clothes peg. It is a good strong dye, the flowers turning cloth yellow or green and the bark a smokey darker green, it’s a medicine for jaundice, kidney stones and scarlet fever, and the flower buds make good caper substitutes. The flowers are edible and can be used in salads, steeped in boiling water for a tea, or turned into wine (recipe here
: the Vikings are rumoured to have brewed a gorse beer, which may explain their generally atrocious behaviour).
It was also much used to keep witches away: the common confusion between gorse and broom comes from its ancient use as a broom to sweep curses and hexes away from the door of the house.
There are three native gorses: U. europaeus, U. gallii (found, as the name suggests, on Welsh mountainsides, and smaller than the common gorse); and U. minor, almost prostrate, flowering in autumn and found mainly in the New Forest. Gorse flowering alongside heather in great swathes across the moorlands is probably one of the most breathtaking of Britain’s natural spectacles.
But – bright yellow splashes in hedgerows aside – it’s not something you’d have in your garden, surely.
Well I’d just like to make a little plea for this old friend. If you have a coastal garden, or one where the soil is really, really poor, there are few plants which will thrive better. It makes a dense and thorough windbreak: and it’ll keep any amount of burglars out.
And it is just wonderful for wildlife, particularly bees. As well as the main flourish in winter and early spring, it produces a few flowers sporadically all year round (‘When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion’, the old saying goes), which bumblebees find irresistible. The flowers, incidentally, are as explosive as the seedpods: they go off like a cannon the moment the bee clambers on, pasting the poor insect with pollen.
There are cultivated forms: U. gallii ‘Mizen’ is prostrate and tiny, growing to just 30cm x 30cm, and there was once a useful-sounding U. europaeus ‘Strictus’ (sometimes ‘Fastigiatus’) which makes for a good low hedge, though it’s no longer listed, sadly.
More commonly-found is Ulex europaeus ‘Plenus’ or sometimes ‘Flore Pleno’, compact and double and recommended by Christopher Lloyd who calls it ‘a fine sight in spring’ and says it has coconut-scented blooms (he’s less keen on gorse when it comes to propagating the stuff: ‘a painful operation best left to the nurseryman’, he says).