Common Gorse, Ulex europaeus: “Tough Love”
Gorse, or furze, lurks in the background of English landscape novels, subsisting on the wild heath, stalwart and unnoticed. Like a character from Thomas Hardy, its prickly exterior encloses a thing of beauty, with a hint of the exotic. In still weather, gorse sends out a scent of coconut, from January until December.
Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer, for Gardenista.
Gorse lives in lonely places, on the heath, common, or moor. Life as a furze-cutter’s wife in Hardy’s The Return of the Native spelled the ruin of Eustacia’s dreams; on the same inhospitable gorse-filled heathland of Wessex, King Lear may have gone mad. Gorse is tragi-comic: Winnie-the-Pooh is studded with prickles after falling out of a tree into a gorse bush in Sussex.
Gorse is evergreen, more or less ever-flowering, and the seeds are ever-germinating. Galicia in northern Spain is home to the most varieties of gorse, native to western Europe. It is considered a serious menace in New Zealand, where it was introduced by Europeans.
Gorse is a key plant for wildlife, providing early if not year-round nectar, and solid protection for birds and invertebrates. These prickly bushes are an ideal setting for nests: on open ground where trees are few, they provide a port in a storm. In a domestic setting, they can be planted as hedges to keep out livestock, or as part of a system of windbreaks.
Gorse is slow-growing, after quickly establishing in well-drained, acid soil. It is an effective pioneer plant, its roots fixing nitrogen in the soil, to the benefit of smaller plants, while providing the protection of a middle story.
Gorse is considered to be “noisy,” in that its seed pods crack open with a loud pop, before hurling themselves through the air. Gorse is highly flammable; a cycle of burning every few years will keep colonies in check, but will not eradicate them, fire encouraging germination from seeds that may have lain dormant for up to 50 years.
• Seen on slopes by the motorway or brightening mysterious landscapes like Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, the warm yellow flowers of gorse bloom for most of the year, when conditions are right.
• Common gorse is the one favored by foragers, lending itself to cordials and infusions. The flowers should be picked from the base, without bruising; go slowly and wear gloves.
• Leaves of gorse are narrow and thorn-like, complemented by actual spines. Flowering is at its most abundant through winter until early summer.
Keep It Alive
• Gorse has proved its worth as a coastal garden plant; withstanding exposure, drought, and sea winds. Sandy, slightly acid soil preferred, but not essential.
• Maximum sunshine is required for gorse to thrive.
• Gorse is not found at altitude; it thrives next to a beach. Hardy to USDA hardiness zones 6-10.
Gorse syrup is a natural with brandy and bitters. See our Recipe: Early Spring Cocktail with Gorse Syrup, from Galway.
N.B. For more hardy plants for a wild garden, see 10 Easy Pieces: Perennials for a Seaside Garden.