Sandy’s Garden ... Gorse

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Earlier this year my wife and I enjoyed a truly wonderful cruise in and around Italy.

We flew to Rome to join our favourite cruise ship, making a leisurely way to Venice with stops virtually every day during which to visit and appreciate the locality around the ship’s position, before eventually returning home on the Venice Simplon Orient Express. Every day included experiences which were truly astonishing and wonder-filled, making the holiday literally wonderful.

One of these wonder-filled experiences entailed travelling in a luxurious coach to a height of 2 100 metres above sea level … that’s one-and-a-half times the height of Ben Nevis … on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, the highest volcano in Europe and one of most active of the entire world. It’s currently quiescent … although low-level activity is well-nigh continuous … the last major eruption having been spread over no less than 417 days in 2008-2009. Substantial portions of Etna’s s slopes resemble a lunar landscape, grey and lava-covered as one would expect. What I … and, I think, most of my fellow-travellers … did not expect was the sight of tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of gorse bushes, flourishing and flowering in this otherwise fairly bleak environment. This was a truly wonder-filled experience, one which encouraged me to find out more about Ulex europaeus, the Latin name for a spiny shrub commonly called gorse, whin or furze, a plant which is native to Sicily and, indeed, to most of Europe, including the United Kingdom.

The website of CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International) … an international not-for-profit organization that improves people’s lives worldwide by providing information and applying scientific expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment … is a veritable treasure-trove of information about gorse, and it was there that I learned that gorse was spread intentionally through most of the world in the 1800s and 1900s as a hedge plant, an ornamental and as animal fodder. As you probably already know, gentle reader, gorse is an evergreen, vigorous shrub which grows on disturbed grounds, depleted pasture and eroded areas, including forest gaps that are often induced, and then maintained by fire. This tough, spiny, long-lived, tall shrub is spread by its enduring seeds and, once established, is extremely difficult to control. Our Scottish ancestors valued it as fodder for their horses and cattle, which can eat its highly-nutritious leaves in the spring when these are young and tender; crofters also harvested these young leaves and crushed them to be stored as winter fodder for the animals. Furthermore, our ancestors made gorse wine from the flowers, from which they also made yellow and green dyes.

The CABI website has an impressive list of uses of gorse. It is used as animal feed, as hedging to form boundaries or barriers, to provide shade and shelter, to stabilise soils which are subject to erosion, as a windbreak, in medicines, as an ornamental shrub in parks and gardens, as fuel and to support colonies of honey bees. However, its introduction into parts of the world where it is non-native led to it being declared a noxious weed 100 years ago in Australia and New Zealand; and gorse is regarded as a serious weed in many other countries, largely because gorse thickets displace vegetation in grassland habitats and outgrow and supplant tree seedlings in plantation forests. It also poses a serious fire risk for indigenous ecosystems as well as managed habitats and human habitations. Well, it’s not the main fire risk on the slopes of Mount Etna, where its ability to thrive in nutritionally poor, very acidic soil allows its brilliant yellow flowers to light up an otherwise bleak landscape. Wonderful!