Saturday, January 17, 2015

Gorse

It was cold today. Minus one on the garden thermometer at breakfast time. My son had a hockey match up at Falmer, so we cycled up and whilst the match was on I continued up to Ditchling Beacon. The hail stopped and the sun came out. South, over the channel, an enormous nimbus edged eastwards unloading its cargo into the sea. And there was today's flower in a spiky bush: Ulex europaeus, more commonly known as gorse.
To me the coconut scent of gorse on a hot summer day is one of the pleasures of walking in the countryside. I wasn't able to catch its aroma today but was still cheered by the bold yellow flowers. 
There are in fact two other gorse species besides the common one: Dwarf Gorse (U. minor) and Western Gorse (U. gallii). The latter is generally found west of a line joining Dorchester-Nottingham-Edinburgh, apart from some areas on the East Anglian coast. The former is found on acid heaths generally in the area where the latter isn't found. The key difference is that Ulex europaeus has an obvious bracteole, which in the other two is vestigial.
It is a member of the Fabaceae family, better known to many as the legumes or pea family. The flowers in this group are distinctively zygomorphic. Many have root nodules hosting bacteria that can fix nitrogen, making them important agriculturally. 

An older name for gorse is furze, and furze faggots were commonly harvested from the heaths to fire bread ovens. It was also an important fodder plant, sometimes crushed or 'bruised' to make it more palatable. The flowers are edible and used in salads or boiled in water with eggs to colour them. Mr Mabey (see Inspiring books) tells us that 'When gorse is in blossom, kissing's in season' is a saying known throughout Britain. I'm guessing that was put about on account of it flowering virtually year-round.
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