Sandy’s Garden ... Whin

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

The sun shone from a cloudless sky, the car was cosy and draught-free and the minor country road was deserted.

There was a truly wonderful hedge of mixed shrubs, interspersed with masses of vibrant yellow whin flowers whose bold colour set off the glowing copper beech leaves in a scene that would have seemed over-brightly coloured had it been painted by an artist. The temptation was irresistible; I must, absolutely must, step out and admire this magical, natural scene; and an icy blast of wind, seemingly straight from the arctic, fairly took my breath away! Aaaagh!

Still, it was probably worth the shock. The brilliant whin flowers, early into bloom because of the relatively mild winter, were positively dazzling in the intense March sunshine, their parent plants almost lost beneath the luxuriant flourishes of blossom, although the usually-powerful scent of sweet coconut was entirely borne away by the wind. Oh yes, we import exotic shrubs from many parts of the world to grace our gardens but give little thought to the attractions of some of our local plants.

Whin is native to Scotland (or should I follow the example of so many of my countrymen and call it Sco’lun?) and other parts of the United Kingdom. In those other parts, the plant is usually called gorse and, in my opinion unfortunately, it seems that its ‘proper’ Scots name is gradually falling out of favour. And whin has a fairly unusual characteristic: it doesn’t have any parts which look like leaves, the role of ‘leaves’ being played by sharp rigid and grooved spines which jut out along the entire length of the branches including the ends. The bush is a very hardy, evergreen member of the pea family … the inch-long flowers (2.5cm for younger readers) give that away … which grows best in sunny sites, usually in rough grassy places with acid soils; and can reach a height of up to 3 metres, say 10 feet in old money. (Some of those I ventured into the wind to admire were every inch of 10 feet high.) There is an old saying here in Scotland that, ‘when the whin is blooming, kissing’s in season;’ and that maxim allows us plenty of scope for, while whin blooms most prolifically in the first months of spring, it can carry flowers in almost any month of the year.

The seed pods which appear after flowering are, technically ‘legumes ‘– members of a group of plant foods like peas, beans and lentils, which contain a wide variety of nutrients. These initially green pods … like miniature pea pods, would you believe? … dry out in sunny, warm weather, becoming brittle and grey-black before they explode with an audible crack to scatter their seed. This ability to scatter seed, allied to whin’s willingness to grow in poor soil, its resistance to drought and its extreme hardiness, has led to whin becoming regarded as an unwanted alien plant in some countries to which it was introduced by British emigrants as a decorative garden shrub. In the states of California, Oregon and Hawaii, in New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania and in much of New Zealand whin is categorised as an invasive species which has proved detrimental in native habitats and very difficult to eradicate. To illustrate the status whin ‘enjoys’ in New Zealand, three sentences from a Weeds Database published by the Massey University of New Zealand, will suffice: ‘Gorse (Ulex europaeus or whin as we call it in Scotland) is considered by many to be New Zealand’s worst scrub weed. It was originally introduced to New Zealand as a hedge species, but now occupies large areas of hill-country, reducing the area available for grazing by livestock on pasture land. It is also causes severe competition with young forest trees, and makes access to forests difficult for pruning and thinning operations.’ Hmm. But it is pretty!