With its dense branches of fearsome spines, Gorse is an unlikely relation of domestic peas and beans. Look more closely at its flowers, and you’ll see a clear similarity to Sweet Peas. On a warm day, the scent is just as good, with notes of vanilla and coconut. The seeds are the shape of tiny beans, growing in slim pods that dry out until they pop, catapulting the seeds out.
Gorse is a native species characteristic of heathland and cliff tops, appearing to cope with either acid or chalky soil provided that it is well-drained. The isolated nature of some of these locations has helped regional names to survive. Some modern field guides still index the alternative Old English name Furze. In northern England and Scotland, Scandinavian-derived Whin is still used, and can be found in place-names and the bird name Whinchat.
Nowadays, where it will grow reliably, the shrub’s main value to people is as a low wind-break and burglar-proof hedge. It was once used – presumably by workers wearing extremely thick leather gloves – as a last-resort thatching material (see http://thatchingwales.co.uk/historical-roofs/thatched-longhouse-wales.php ). Bashed about to soften the prickles, it could also be used as winter fodder for livestock. The herbalist Thomas Culpeper suggests using extracts from the flowers to treat jaundice and urinary infections, but modern practitioners appear to have abandoned it.
For wildlife, it provides an almost impregnable nesting site and a valuable source of early nectar. Surprisingly enough it also has a specialist species. The Gorse Shield-bug is a doughty little creature that feeds on the sap of Gorse and its close relations from July well into a mild January. It might have a Spotlight of its own one day.
At St Nicks, Gorse grows only in the scrubby area along the main path opposite the play area. It has been in flower since 16th October, and should last through until June, though its most spectacular display is likely to be in March and April. In areas with more bushes, you would seldom look for flowers without finding a few, giving rise to the old country saying, “When Gorse is out of bloom, kissing’s out of fashion.” Sadly St Nicks only has a few bushes, so it’s uncool to kiss between July and September. The bushes rarely look entirely happy, which is hardly surprising. They dislike waterlogged ground, and despite its tough evergreen appearance Gorse can be wiped out by a hard winter. In amongst them grows Cuckoo-flower, a lover of damp grassland and marshes. Between the two, we have a fascinating measure of how that particular area of the reserve is evolving. Long-term, it seems likely that the Gorse will lose out, so enjoy it while it’s there.
For a good Gorse story, check out http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/4133822.stm