Gorse - did you know?

Few plants make such an impact on the landscape as flowering gorse, with it's vibrant colour and distinct aroma of vanilla and coconut to the popping of seed pods on a warm sunny day. This member of the Pea family is a particularly welcome sight as we come out of the dark and dreary winter.

Common gorse grows in all kinds of habitat, from coastal grasslands to towns and gardens, but it is a particular feature of heathland and we have lots of it to show here on Putney Heath.   Despite its prickly spines, it plays an important role for our wildlife, providing shelter and food for many insects and birds, including Stonechat, Linnet and Yellowhammer. It is also essential for the survival of Dartford Warblers, providing refuge in harsh winters – we are ever hopeful that the Dartford Warbler  (pictured right) that makes an appearance on our gorse most years will eventually breed here. 

For invertebrates, it provides a valuable early nectar source when there is not much else in flower. The caterpillars of a species of case bearer moth feed exclusively on gorse and nearly 20 species of beetle are only found on it. Many spiders live in gorse and their webs are sometimes prominent on the bushes.  Tiny gorse spider mites construct tent-like structures over the plant, which allows them to live and feed in relative safety. The gorse mites only feed on this plant so they have been used as biological control agents in regions of the world where gorse is an invasive non-native weed.

Traditionally, common gorse was regularly collected from common land for a number of purposes:

  • The wood is naturally highly saturated with oils and so it burns voraciously so making it valuable for providing fuel for kilns and bread ovens – the fire on the Heath in 2020 certainly showed how hot and fast gorse can burn
  • Once the spines are crushed, gorse makes a valuable feed for livestock, including cattle and horses, in winter.
  • Straight stems make excellent walking sticks and gorse and heather can be bound together to make besom brooms and chimney brushes, whilst gardeners use chopped gorse laid over emerging peas to deter pigeons and mice.
  • The flowers are edible and are apparently especially good when added to scones to impart a delicate flavouring. Gorse flowers can also be fermented to create wine and beer.
  • In Ireland, gorse is sometimes added to whisky which changes the colour of the liquid and adds a unique almond like flavour to the spirit.
  • Gorse flowers and the young green shoots of the botanical can also be used to make dye, for clothes, or for food. The flowers can be used to make gold and yellow dyes, whilst the shoots make a soft green dye.

Given this multitude of uses, across the country there were a number of restrictions on its collection to prevent over-exploitation.  For example, in Oxfordshire people were only allowed to collect as much as they could carry on their backs and in Hertfordshire there were regulations prohibiting cutting outside a certain parish and digging-up entire bushes. In some places even the type and size of cutting implements that could be used have been specified.

If you've not walked through the gorse on a warm sunny day - do so this spring!