Gorse – the yellowest of flowers

Ben DolphinIf you had to describe each Scottish season using just one colour, which would you choose? Well, firstly, let’s overlook the fact that every season can feel like October in some years and let’s assume there are the traditional four. Would you perhaps choose the verdant green of grass or trees for summer? The rusty brown of leaves or bracken for autumn? The harsh white of frost or snow for winter? But what about spring? If you had to sum up the season of regrowth in one colour, what would you choose?

I’d like to nominate yellow. Not because of spring daffodils, but because of gorse. That painfully prickly shrub that bursts into life this time of year and seems to utterly dominate the landscape.

Gorse’s dominance is something of an illusion, however, for it doesn’t blanket the landscape to the same extent as snow or grass do. It’s much more localised, but its impact is greater because it grows where we like to walk: the coastline, heaths and moorland. On brownfield sites and field edges. On rough, neglected or uncultivated land. It also readily grows on the edges of where we like to drive, along Scottish roads, so it sometimes feels as though it accompanies us everywhere we go.

But without doubt, gorse dominates its surroundings by virtue of its startling appearance. It is a shade of yellow so lurid and so bright as to require sunglasses to look at it on a sunny day. And as a result, even the most modest concentrations of those shockingly yellow flowers can’t be easily ignored.

Arthur’s Seat in its gaudy spring garb

Arthur’s Seat in its gaudy spring garb

Gorse is by no means the first nor the only dash of colour in the countryside in spring, but after a long dark winter where bright colours are short in supply, it emerges so boldly, so brightly, and in such stark contrast to the subdued winter flora, that it sometimes feels like the first and only colour of the Scottish spring.

Assault on the senses

I dare say many people have their favourite gorse hotspots around Scotland, such as along the west coast at Arisaig and Morar, or perhaps the hills overlooking Helmsdale, but my own personal hotspot is in Edinburgh. In the seven years I spent in the city, I kept my legs hill-fit by going up Arthur’s Seat almost every day after work. It was a pleasure any time of year but I always looked forward to April and May, for that was when Arthur put on his gorsey glad rags.

I can still vividly remember my first Edinburgh spring when entire flanks of Arthur’s Seat, seemingly overnight, burst into monochromatic splendour. Under the bright northern sun, in crystal clear air, it was the yellowest yellow I had ever seen. In fact it was so shockingly yellow that it was almost sickening, and it seemed to make the whole landscape shimmer in the same way snow cover does, with light being reflected back into the sky.
There was also the distinctive, oddly coconuty / almondy smell on the nose. And on warm days when a hot sun dried the black seed pods hanging from the branches, the air was full with the sound of tiny explosions. Of gorse pods popping and catapulting their seeds far and wide. More than any other plant I know, a walk through a landscape rich in gorse is an assault on the senses. And on those bright sunny days in April and May, the sight of yellow stark against a blue sky is enough to lift even the heaviest of hearts.

Although gorse blooms best in the spring, it will do so to a lesser extent at other times of the year if it is mild enough. Hence the old saying ‘When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion’. It’s a humorous adage, a knowing wink to the fact that gorse can flower all year round in milder climes.

That’s true where I live, in Fife’s Lomond Hills. Here, I’ve noticed that gorse eagerly exploits the slightest chink in winter’s armour. During a very mild spell we experienced around New Year 2014/15, a few brave gorse bushes near me put out one or two flowers. It wasn’t a wholehearted flowering, rather it was gorse dipping its toe in the warm winter puddle to see if it was worth jumping in feet first.

It wasn’t. A week later we were back in the freezer and those few flowers were gone. Gorse seems to choose its moment wisely, and certainly up here in the Lomond Hills the gorse bloom, when it comes, is a confident statement that winter is gone and summer is on its way.

Gorse or broom?

Up to this point I’ve been referring simply to ‘gorse’, but there are three species of gorse in the UK. Western, Dwarf and Common, but the one we most commonly encounter in Scotland is… surprise surprise, the aptly named ‘Common Gorse’. It goes by many other names across the country, the most well known of which are perhaps furze and whin, so it’s no coincidence that one of the most gorse-clad areas of Arthur’s Seat is known as Whinny Hill.

Broom and gorse ID.  Clockwise from top left: whip-like broom stems growing amongst flowering gorse; smooth broom stems on the left and prickly gorse stems on the right; broom seed pod after it has burst open; larger broom flower in the foreground and similar but smaller gorse flowers in the background.

Broom and gorse ID. Clockwise from top left: whip-like broom stems growing amongst flowering gorse; smooth broom stems on the left and prickly gorse stems on the right; broom seed pod after it has burst open; larger broom flower in the foreground and similar but smaller gorse flowers in the background.

The gorses are all members of the Fabaceae family of plants, a huge family more commonly known as the ‘peas’. Another member of that family, Broom, is superficially similar to gorse and the two are easily confused. That confusion is understandable, however, as both plants have those lurid yellow flowers. They also both tend to grow in the same kinds of places; scrub, uncultivated land, roadsides etc. In a dense clump where both are found, it can hard to tell where the gorse ends and the broom begins.

Closer inspection, however, reveals that the two are significantly different. Broom’s flowers are larger than those of gorse, and its stems are long, flexible and smooth. Gorse stems couldn’t be more different, as they are spiky. Very spiky, in fact. Interestingly, gorse spikes are essentially the plant’s leaves and, like the leaves of heather, they have a small surface area to minimise water loss in the windy, exposed locations the plants likes to inhabit.

A prickly pioneer

Spikiness, along with its springtime colour, is surely gorse’s defining characteristic. I can attest to this personally, having once had the dire misfortune of slipping sideways off a path and tumbling into some gorse bushes in the Pentland Hills.

It was pointless to struggle as I fell, so I just resigned myself to what would surely be an unpleasant experience, and waited until I’d come to a stop before trying to extricate myself from the prickly prison. I came to rest on my back, on a slope, with my head pointing downhill and my feet pointing uphill. Painful doesn’t begin to describe it, as the spikes of a mature gorse bush are a couple of centimetres long and hard as wood.

Gorse flower ringed by those unforgiving spikes. Ouch!

Gorse flower ringed by those unforgiving spikes. Ouch!

But my experience pales to that of Dean Bowen of North Yorkshire, who made headlines in 2005 when he fell into a 10ft high gorse bush and was unable to get out. It was two days before someone heard his cries for help, and in the end the RAF had to winch him out with a helicopter!

Spiky defences as unforgiving as this might seem like overkill but nature has good reason for bestowing them. Gorse is a relatively nutritious plant, high in protein, and was historically used as a ground-up feed for livestock. The spikes therefore protect the plant by deterring all but the most stubborn of browsing herbivores. Little wonder gorse is sometimes used a nursery for young tree saplings, when some landowners will plant new trees amongst gorse to protect them as they grow.

But while its impenetrable foliage might be off-putting to most animals, others see it as protection. Birds like stonechats and yellowhammers can be seen flitting from one gorse bush to another, and it is home to a variety of spiders and invertebrates. Gorse also happens to be an early source of pollen for bees, and is a good place to find my all time favourite fungus. The superbly named ‘yellow brain’.

Gorse is also known to be a nitrogen fixer. This means it can, like many in the pea family, take nitrogen from the air and turn it into nitrates, a food it can actually use. The plant itself doesn’t do this, rather it is done by bacteria that live on its roots. In exchange, the bacteria get carbohydrates from the gorse. Like so many relationships in the natural world, it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Being able to ‘fix’ nitrogen in this way enables gorse to move into areas that other plants are unable to colonise. The speed with which it does this, and the nature of its seed dispersal make gorse a vigorously successful ‘pioneer’ species – the name given to plants that move in first to newly exposed ground.

A couple of gorse residents. Stonechat, and the lovely yellow brain fungus.

A couple of gorse residents. Stonechat, and the lovely yellow brain fungus.

However, like many other pioneer species, gorse tends not to make significant inroads into land that remains undisturbed. Hence its apparent tendency to grow alongside roads and fields, where the land has been dug and new soil exposed.

In time, however, as gorse drops its leaves or dies, it passes its nitrogen content back to the soil and inadvertently prepares the way for other species to follow once the conditions have become more favourable for them. They in turn can eventually shade out the gorse and come to dominate, and the gorse will wither and disappear.

So gorse obviously has its place in the Scottish environment. It is a home for wildlife, food for our insects, prepares exposed ground for other plants to follow, adds colour to our landscapes, and can be a useful tool in managing the land. But as with most things in nature you can have too much of a good thing.

A yellow headache

The qualities that make gorse so successful are a real headache for some land managers. It is often referred to as ‘invasive’, meaning it can have an adverse impact on existing natural biodiversity, habitats or agriculture where it thrives as a monoculture.

Just look at New Zealand, where gorse (a plant not found there naturally) was imported by British colonists to establish hedgerows, and as food and shelter for livestock. In the milder Kiwi climate it grew taller, ejected more seeds, and has since run rampant. It now covers a small but significant percentage of their entire land mass and is officially listed as one of their worst weeds.

An old 35mm photo I took in Wellington, NZ.  It’s a bit grainy but you can clearly see just how big a problem gorse is there.

An old 35mm photo I took in Wellington, NZ. It’s a bit grainy but you can clearly see just how big a problem gorse is there.

Here in Scotland, our hard frosts keep gorse in check, but even here it can outstay its welcome. It can crowd out adjacent vegetation, encroaching upon valuable grassland or heather moorland, but it is also a serious fire risk even in Scotland’s damper climate.

It burns readily and it burns hot, which is why it used to be cultivated as a quick-growing fuel and was apparently used to fire bread ovens. These days its combustibility keeps the fire service busy, for spring tends to be when gorse and heather-fuelled wildfires rage across the Scottish countryside. Indeed, already this year we’ve seen substantial fires at Dornoch in Sutherland, Onich in Lochaber and Shawbost on Lewis.

You might think that a raging wildfire would be a good way to get rid of gorse if it’s annoying you, but the seed pods explode and distribute their seeds on freshly fired soil, and the root systems can readily sprout new shoots. Getting rid of it is therefore done manually and is labour intensive, painful, or both!

Most of us, however, don’t have to consider problems like this and we instead wander the Scottish countryside in blissful ignorance, intoxicated by the sensory overload that is gorse.

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