“When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion”

By: shortfinals

Jan 29 2011

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Category: British Isles, Derbyshire, England, France, Great Britain, Plants, Scotland

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Focal Length:55mm
Shutter:1/0 sec
Camera:NIKON D40


Gorse bushes (sometimes known as furze, furse or whin) are common on rough, rocky ground – something that is in plentiful supply in my native Derbyshire! Here we see a bush of Common Gorse (Ulex europaeus) growing alongside the A38 Derby-Leeds trunk road, near Ripley, Derbyshire. The masses of pea-like blossoms are concentrated towards the ends of the branches, which carry many sharp thorns; these are green, and along with the green stems, provide most of the photosynthetic effort of the plant. Seeds are held in pods (like legumes) and are often expelled several feet away from the plant when the pod snaps open (this effect is pronounced should the gorse bush be consumed by fire). There are two other members of the evergreen gorse family in Britain, the Western Gorse (U. gallii), which, as its name suggests, is found mainly in the west, and the Dwarf Furze (U. minor), found in the eastern half of the country on mostly sandy soils.

The root system of the gorse carries nodules which contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria (again, common with members of the pea family, Fabaceae), and, as such, will improve the nitrogen content of poorer soils for other plants. This beneficial effect is negated by the fact that gorse is a strong competitor for space, crowding out and smothering other species (it generates a dense layer of dead foliage, spines, and other material beneath the bush, becoming almost ‘self-mulching’). Members of the gorse family contain quantities of natural oils in their foliage, meaning that areas of gorse are prone to swift-moving heath fires. In many ways (as with Common Heather, Calluna vulgaris), this is a necessary part of the life-cycle of the plant. Dead gorse branches make for excellent fuel, having been used to successfully bake bread in a reconstruction of a prehistoric oven at the Experimental Archeology Site at Tunstall, Suffolk (the Suffolk County Council Archeology Service also found that Romans had used the same fuel at their nearby salt-extraction site). Gorse (or whin) was also crushed by hand (pounded by stones) and used as winter fodder for grazing animals, particularly in Scotland.

Ulex europaeus has become widespread throughout the world, usually being imported as an ornamental bush (the flowers have a strong fragrance like coconut, for some people). This has caused serious ecological problems in some areas. In the USA, the states of Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii classify gorse as a noxious weed, (as well as the Canadian Province of British Columbia) and all infestations of this invasive species must be notified to the authorities. The fire hazard was shown with the loss, in 1936, of almost the whole town of Bandon, Oregon, to a massive fire; 14 people died, and the main cause of the disaster was the gorse growing in and around the town. As well as the USA, there are major infestations in Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, India, Australia and especially New Zealand, where up to half a million acres of potential hill pasture has been lost to the plant. Gorse can be controlled by digging up the extensive root system, or tilling the soil. Chickens will eat the seeds and foliage and goats the younger (fire-regenerated) shoots. In some western US states, the Gorse Weevil (Apion ulicis) has been introduced from France as a means of biological control. Biocontrol in Chile is centred on the Gorse Soft Shoot Moth (Agonopterix ulicetella), which was also shown to be a viable biocontrol for New Zealand in a seminal paper (Hill et al, ‘Suitability of Agonopterix ulicetella (Lepidoptera: Oecophoridae) as a Control for Ulex europaeus (Fabaceae: Genisteae) in New Zealand’ Biocontrol Science and Technology, 1995; 5 (1): 3 -10).

The old country saying “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion”, comes from the fact that with its long flowering season and the three different local species, you are almost always able to find some gorse blossom, somewhere!

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