By Any Other Name

What a winter we have had so far! Just in the last month we have had several vicious winter storms, damaging wind, torrential rain, flooding, and even snow here in Galway City. And the winter is only half over yet. It’s amazing to think that anything has managed to survive outside through all of that. And yet when I run along the banks of the Corrib, I continue to see not only Ireland’s storied forty shades of green but other colours as well, from the scarlet breast of the robin to a veritable blanket of bright yellow flowers on the hillside, even as snow still lay in shaded pockets on the ground.

What’s this? Flowers? In winter? If you guessed gorse, you are correct.

Gorse, furze, whin, aiteann gallda, Ulex europaeus. Whatever name you call it by, a plant so important yet often overlooked deserves many names. Although it grows across Europe, evergreen gorse is iconically Irish (even lending its name to one of our premiere literary journals) and especially suited to our (relatively) mild climate, flowering year-round and through the winter, its bright yellow coconut-scented blossoms, which other than their colour look very much like pea-flowers, are an especially welcome relief from the dark dreary days that can begin to feel oppressive about this time of year. The common saying “When gorse is out of flower, kissing’s out of fashion” attests to this endurance.

But as much as for its flowers, gorse is known for its thorns (perhaps this is another thing that makes gorse so quintessentially Irish). These are not thorns like those innocuous scales on a rose bush; they are actually the leaves of the plant, up to 4 cm long, and are extremely tough and sharp — as anyone who has accidentally brushed against a gorse bush knows.

Like most thorny plants (especially hawthorn), gorse has traditionally been associated with the faerie, usually guarding the entrances to the sídhe. The ancient Celtic tradition considered it a sacred wood, linked with Lugh, the god of light, and it was used to light the Bealtaine bonfires to mark the beginning of summer. Gorse has played a part in Irish culture from the very beginning, spreading far back into our legends and stories, because it grows so abundantly here.

From a deep, stubborn taproot, the shrub thrives in our poor native soil, growing up to 2 metres tall and wide depending on the species, and spreads easily through lateral and adventitious roots — those that can grow out from a low branch or a cutting to propagate the plant. Because of its aggressive spreading nature, and its thorns, gorse often earns the wrath of farmers (many wildfires are caused every year by farmers trying to burn the gorse off their land).

But as troublesome as gorse can seem, it is also a tremendously beneficial plant, even to farmers. Obviously it makes an excellent hedgerow to keep livestock in pastures or to keep them out of crop fields, also providing welcome habitat for birds and other wildlife. Beyond its value as a barrier, gorse is a nitrogen-fixer, improving the soil in which it grows. It is what is known as a fire-climax plant, burning easily but regrowing quickly from the roots, and the seeds have specifically adapted to germinate after scorching (so setting fires is actually a counter-effective control method!); abundant, easy to light even when wet, and fast burning, it was often used in the past as fuel. When ground or pulverised, it makes an excellent fodder for livestock. The leaves are commonly thought to repel fleas. The wood (if you have the courage to get past the thorns) is tough and rot-resistant, making it excellent for such various uses as cutlery and tool handles, hurleys, and walking sticks, and it was often used as roof thatching in the past.

Its winter flowers provide one of the earliest sources of nectar to bees, and although high in alakloids, the flowers, smelling of coconut and tasting faintly of marzipan, are edible in small amounts; they make an excellent addition to salads, and have long been used to add colour and flavour to whiskey. They even make a delicate tea or wine — again, if you have a tough pair of gloves and the tenacity to collect enough of the blossoms. According to folk medicine, the flowers also are considered to be a cure for scarlet fever and, when boiled, for worms in horses. The bark makes a dark green dye for cloth, and the flowers a bright saffron dye for cloth. The ashes are very alkaline and were used as fertiliser, or mixed with fat to make soap.

How, then, has such an incredibly useful and multifaceted plant fallen to the point where so many consider it to be nothing more than a pernicious weed?

The answer may lie in the very definition of a weed as any plant that is unwanted. In the past, the very diversity of uses led to widespread control of the shrub. Regular cutting for thatch or as a base to keep the mown hay off the ground kept the plant in check. When it grew in less abundance, farmers could burn it back every year to control it and enrich the soil without setting the entire countryside afire, and sheep and cattle would feed on the tender young shoots, further controlling its spread. Deforestation opened up too much of the land, and Ireland’s subsequent gradual move away from a farming economy has left too many fields abandoned or neglected, though, and opportunistic gorse has quickly moved in and taken over where it never would have grown before. These days it can be found practically everywhere, and as it displaces grassland and bog fields it reduces ecological diversity by crowding out most other plant species and eliminating the variety of food sources for wildlife. Gorse seed pods literally explode — in hot weather you can actually hear them pop! — to forcefully scatter seeds far and wide, as many as 6 million per hectare; these seeds can survive for 30 years or more before germinating, making true eradication almost impossible. Any attempt at control other than brutally paving over the landscape will demand a slow, costly, and very long-term strategy.

Gorse is an essential part of the Irish landscape and ecology, and we would all be poorer without it — and yet ironically, too much gorse is making Ireland a poorer place. Gorse is a part of Ireland’s soul, and an Ireland without this prickly representative, without those comforting yellow flowers in the dead of winter, is unthinkable. But unless we find a way to keep it in its place, gorse may ruin the heart of Ireland. A solution will not be easy to find, but it is important that we do find one. Like most things in life, it will require delicate balance.

All images courtesy of James C. Bassett