Updated: Nov 4, 2022
Yesterday on my way to work at a school I drove through a pass in the hills.
Either side of the road was resplendent with bright, sunshine yellow gorse flowers. Gorse is a plant I have long had a challenging relationship with so I decided it would be a good one to explore the folklore of.
Gorse is quick to sprout and regenerate when it is cleared, making it a nuisance in many farmed areas.
It is exactly this resilience and love of sunlight that made it a symbol of hope and overcoming adversity in the past.
It was also seen as a symbol of love and fertility and often used to be used as part of a bridal bouquet.
However, it should never be given to someone else as a gift or it could bring bad luck.
Gorse, also known as Furze, is a member of the pea family and it has sweet vanilla and coconut scented flowers. The flowers can be eaten, in small numbers, and have been added in the past to dishes and whisky to improve the look and flavour. I once made an excellent cake using the flowers, they are high in alkalis though and caution should be taken as high consumption is now thought to lead to health problems. It has a very high oil content and burns with a similar intensity to charcoal. It was used in traditional Celtic festivals to start bonfires for celebrations around the turning of the seasons and the wheel of the year.
Gorse was associated with the Celtic God of Sun and Summer, Lugh, no doubt because the flowers symbolised the sun swimming high into the sky once more and the reign of summer approaching.
Due to its flowering times it was particularly associated with the Spring Equinox, as that is when its flowers tend to cover the landscape in vast numbers.
This makes it and important early food source for flying insects. There are though several species so it is likely you will find a patch in bloom somewhere most of the year.
There is an old saying, which has several versions “When the gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season.” Fortunate that it has such a long season!
Gorse is easy to mistake with its cousin Broom, however Broom does not had the spines of gorse and tends to flower a little later in the year. The prickly nature of gorse added to its protective reputation, especially around livestock. As well as being an effective hedgerow plant, gorse was thought to be an acceptable flea repellent. Cuttings were burned around the perimeters of fields to encourage fertility of cattle and other livestock.
When settlers from Scotland and Ireland emigrated to the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand, they took this versatile plant with them.
Sadly it has become a pest in many areas of these countries as it tough nature out competes natives species.
Due to its high oil content it is also a fire risk on some land.
Gorse is an excellent example of a species being great in one location, and not in another.
On an early spring day, when the taste of winter is still in the air, very little beats the exuberant scent and activity of a hillside covered in gorse.