The Song of The Gorse Fairies
“When gorse is out of blossom,”
(Its prickles bare of gold)
“Then kissing’s out of fashion,”
Said country-folk of old.
Now Gorse is in its glory
In May when skies are blue,
But when time is over,
Whatever shall we do?
O dreary would the world be, With everyone grown cold –
Forlorn as prickly bushes Without their fairy gold!
But this will never happen:
At every time of year You’ll find one bit of blossom –
A kiss from someone dear!
By; Cicely Mary Barker
Gorse also known as Furze, is in flower during most months of the year, the above photo was taken in February 2016. The peak of flowering is normally in May and by mid summer the bushes have predominantly lots of short seed pods.
Gorse is a member of the pea family or Leguminosae (also sometimes known as Fabaceae), to use the scientific names. This family is huge and extends from the small plants like vetches through to the familiar beans and peas and then into bushes like Gorse and Broom and even trees such as Laburnum and Locust tree. All of these plants have nodules on their roots which contain bacteria that can convert atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogenous fertiliser and this is of benefit not only to the bacteria ( they don’t do it out of the kindness of their heart) but also to the host plants. So the leguminosae can often survive in areas low in natural fertiliser, or out compete plants which do not have this advantage. Gorse will certainly colonise places like heathlands and moorlands which are low in nutrients.
In my bit of Ninewells wood there was no Gorse when I bought it, however there was some in other parts of Ninewells wood, particularly the more open areas. There is also plenty in the surrounding areas like Trellech beacon. Within a couple of months of felling the Corsican pines, gorse plants were popping up everywhere. There had obviously been a vast seed bank of then in the soil waiting for ‘good times’ to return again. They particularly sprung up on the edges of the bonfire sites where the brash had been burnt off. This is because gorse seeds have a particularly tough seed coat and they either have to wait many years for it to naturally decompose, or this can be circumvented by having the seed coat cracked by heat. Obviously the distance from the heat source is quite critical as too close and the seed inside would be cooked and to far away and the seat coat would not split. So you often see a narrow band of gorse plants growing up just around the edge of a bonfire site.
Surprisingly Gorse is quite a favoured food plant by rabbits, and the little plants now growing in my bit of woodland are regularly getting nibbled back. Eventually they will probably grow up above the level where a rabbit can reach and then they will be able to grow to full size which is about 2 to3 meters in height. Of course this will depend on how many rabbits there are and how much alternative food there is.I recall an area in Norfolk called Syderstone common where I used to take students foe ecology studies and there the rabbits had moulded the gorse bushes into peculiar low topiary shapes. None were more than 50 cm high, no flowers and constantly being nibbled back.
Where it does get to flower and especially on a warm sunny day then the air has a strong smell of coconuts. It smells like a tropical beach with lots of sunbathers whacking on the coconut sun tan lotion. A few weeks later and the seed pods will have developed, these are typical pea/bean like pods but quite short, most will contain just 3 or 4 seeds. Many of these seeds will have a small grub living in them Exapion ulicis (formerly Apion ulicis) common name Gorse Seed Weevil. ( photo from Wikipedia, click for more info on this little chap) So only a small number of the seeds will be viable. The seeds are dispersed by the seed pod violently splitting in two, lengthways, and at the same time twisting up so the seeds are flung out. This process creates a little cracking noise and on hot days in July you can hear them going off if you stand near gorse bushes.
Another interesting insect associated with gorse is a beautiful little butterfly called a green hairstreak. The caterpillar of this butterfly will feed on Gorse amongst other food plants.
To return to main wildflower page click Woodland wildflowers.