Sunday, 17 March 2013

Common gorse (Ulex europeaus)

Common gorse (Ulex europeaus) is a hardy evergreen shrub which grows to around 1.5 metres high by 1.5 metres wide, sometimes larger. It is a member of the Fabaceae or Legume family. Other common names include furze and whin. It is a native of Britain and parts of Europe including Portugal, France and Spain although it has been naturalised in Australia, New Zealand, North America and South America.

An image of common gorse (Ulex europaeus) on the Mull of Galloway
Common gorse (Ulex europaeus) on the Mull of Galloway

Growing methods

Gorse can be purchased as seed or root trained and container grown shrubs. To grow from seed scarify the seeds with sandpaper and soak them overnight in water. Sow individually in pots under cover in the autumn or spring. Once seedlings have come up keep them under cover for the first winter and then plant out in their final position.

It is pollinated by insects and once the flowers have ripened and produced seed, shrubs will self seed and naturally propagate. Ripe seed can be ejected from the pods for up to 5 metres. Shrubs can be grown in poor soil, drought conditions and exposed coastal areas. They will grow in most soils although they prefer acidic conditions. They must have a sunny position.

This shrub has a life cycle of around 30 years becoming increasingly woody as time goes on. To maintain shrubs prune out old woody growth as the young to mature parts regenerate the best. To maintain large areas cut back to within 15 cm on a rotational basis and rake around the base of the shrub to encourage seed dispersal. Gorse is also myrmecochoric meaning its seeds are dispersed by ants.

Gorse has a large and long-lived soil seed bank. There can be up to 400 million seeds per hectare in the soil under a mature bush. Most seed is hard and can lie dormant for decades before germination takes place. It is considered a weed species in many countries but can be controlled and maintained providing benefit to humans, wildlife and the environment. Large stands of mature shrubs can be a fire risk as dead spines hang on the bush and dry out.

Raw edible parts

The bright yellow flowers are edible raw and can be made into a tea. The buds can be pickled and used like capers. Gorse is a useful wild food as it continually flowers all year round. Flowers may have a slight coconut aroma and the faint taste of bitter almonds.

Issues: Do not eat flowers in very large quantities on a regular basis as they contain slightly toxic alkaloids. Do not let this put you off! The long pods and dark seeds are not edible either raw or cooked.

Other info

Gorse is a useful native shrub. It is a pioneer species and a nitrogen fixer feeding the soil and other plants around it. The wood can be used as fuel and is good kindling which burns quick and hot. Wood ash is rich in potassium and can be used to make a lye for making soap or to enrich the soil. A yellow dye can be made from the flowers and roots.

Since it is thorny it often presents an impenetrable barrier to both people and animals. It will usually tolerate the grazing habits of deer and rabbits, although this may depend on how hungry the animals are. The flowers produce pollen in the autumn, winter and spring when little else is in flower and is therefore important to bees and other pollinating insects. 

1 comment:

  1. considered a noxious weed in Washington state.