Gorse is closely related to the brooms, and like them, has green stems and very small leaves and is adapted to dry growing conditions. However it differs in its extreme spininess, with the shoots being modified into branched spines 1–4 centimetres (0.39–1.6 in) long, which almost wholly replace the leaves as the plant's functioning photosynthetic organs. The leaves of young plants are trifoliate, but are later reduced to scales or small spines. All the species have yellow flowers, some with a very long flowering season.
SpeciesEditThe most widely familiar species is Common/European Gorse (Ulex europaeus), the only species native to much of western Europe, where it grows in sunny sites, usually on dry, sandy soils. It is also the largest species, reaching 2–3 metres (7–10 ft) in height; this compares with typically 20–40 centimetres (7.9–16 in) for Western Gorse (Ulex gallii). This latter species is characteristic of highly exposed Atlantic coastal heathland and montane habitats. Western gorse is replaced in the eastern part of Great Britain by Dwarf Furze (Ulex minor), a plant about 30 centimetres (12 in) tall, characteristic of sandy lowland heathland. Common gorse flowers a little in late autumn and through the winter, coming into flower most strongly in spring. Western Gorse and Dwarf Furze flower in late summer (August-September in Ireland and Britain). Between the different species, some gorse is almost always in flower, hence the old country phrase: "When gorse is out of blossom, kissing's out of fashion". Gorse flowers have a distinctive coconut scent, experienced very strongly by some individuals, but weakly by others.
Gorse may grow as a fire-climax plant, well adapted to encourage and withstand fires, being highly flammable, and having seed pods that are to a large extent opened by fire, thus allowing rapid regeneration after fire. The burnt stumps also readily sprout new growth from the roots. Where fire is excluded, gorse soon tends to be shaded out by taller-growing trees, unless other factors like exposure also apply. Typical fire recurrence periods in gorse stands are 5-20 years.
Gorse thrives in poor growing areas and conditions including drought; it is sometimes found on very rocky soils, where many species cannot thrive. Moreover, it is widely used for land reclamation (e.g., mine tailings), where its nitrogen-fixing capacity helps other plants establish better.
Gorse is a valuable plant for wildlife, providing dense thorny cover ideal for protecting bird nests; in Britain, France and Ireland, it is particularly noted for supporting European Stonechats and Dartford Warblers. The flowers are sometimes eaten by the larva of the Double-striped Pug moth and another moth, Coleophora albicosta feeds exclusively on Ulex.
As an invasive plantEdit
In many areas of North America, southern South America, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaiʻi, Common Gorse, introduced as an ornamental plant or hedge, has become naturalised and an invasive weed due to its aggressive seed dispersal; it has proved very difficult to eradicate.
Gorse readily becomes dominant in suitable conditions, and where this is undesirable for agricultural or ecological reasons control is required, either to remove gorse completely, or to limit its extent. Gorse stands are often managed by regular burning or flailing, allowing them to regrow from stumps or seed. Denser areas of gorse may be bulldozed.
Gorse flowers are edible and can be used in salads, tea and to make a non-grape-based "wine".
Gorse is high in protein and may be used as feed for livestock, particularly in winter when other greenstuff is not available. Traditionally it was used as fodder for cattle, being made palatable by being "bruised" (crushed)by hand using mallets, being ground to a moss-like consistency using hand- or water-driven mills, or finely chopped and mixed with straw chaff. Gorse is also eaten as forage by some livestock, such as feral ponies, who may eat little else in winter. Ponies may also eat the thinner stems of burnt gorse.
Gorse bushes are highly flammable, and in many areas bundles of gorse were used to fire traditional bread ovens.
The furze is the badge of the Sinclair and MacLennan clans of Scotland