Sid Valley Biodiversity: The story of gorse

Gorse on Salcombe Hill

Gorse on Salcombe Hill - Credit: Charles Sinclair

The story of gorse, otherwise known as furze, is about kisses, weevils, baking, Thomas Hardy, a helicopter, Christmas and even more kissing.

“There must be no kissing whilst the furze flower’s missing” is a typical country saying. This is not about puritanical restraint. It is a joke. Common gorse flowers from February till June, Western Gorse from July till November, but in December and January common gorse has a winter flowering that is self-fertile.

Steve jones head and shoulders picture

Steve Jones writes for Sid Valley Biodiversity Group - Credit: Contributed

In Cornwall at Christmas it was once the custom to bring a green branch of gorse into the house and set it up in a tub. Red berries from the hedgerow would be impaled on the spikes. Kissing took place carefully across the spiky branch. After each kiss a berry was taken off and thrown in the fire. When all the berries had burnt it was the end of Christmas kissing.

The winter flowering of Common Gorse is the result of a seed weevil. It looks like a very tiny elephant and has larvae that can eat the poisonous gorse seeds. So just in case the weevils eat all the seeds in the summer the gorse has a flowering in winter when the weevils are not around, even though there are no pollinators either. So the all-year-round flowers and all-year-round kissing is down to weevils. Apart from weevils gorse is host to several kinds of moth caterpillar; one eats the seeds, another eats the decaying wood. Dodder is a parasitic plant that lives off gorse. It appears in summer as a tangle of pink threads with small white flowers. It has no leaves or roots and takes food straight out of the gorse branches.

Common Gorse on Salcombe Hill

Common Gorse on Salcombe Hill - Credit: Charles Sinclair 

The main use of gorse was as fuel for bread ovens. All farmhouses and many cottages used to have an oven built into the side of the kitchen fireplace. These were like a pizza oven but without a chimney. Most in the West Country were clay cloam ovens. They were made in the potteries around Bideford and Truro and were still in production in the 1930s. A store of dried gorse would be kept and at baking time the oven would be filled and lit and kept burning till the oven was red hot. Then the ashes would be cleaned out, the bread dough put in and the clay oven door lifted into place. As the fit of the door was not good,

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left over dough would be used as a seal. Later ovens had an iron door that had a tight fit. Experience would tell when the bread was ready and the seal was broken and the bread taken out. There would then be enough heat left in the oven to bake cakes.

Despite vast quantities of furze being burnt in ovens in most areas there was more than enough the satisfy demand, though in Oxfordshire there was a law that only as much furze as you could carry on your back could be cut. Furze cutters were poorly paid. In Thomas Hardy’s novel “The Return of the Native” Clym Yeobright, having become almost blind from too much reading, is forced to eke out a living by cutting furze on Egdon Heath.

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In 2005 near Filey in Yorkshire a man returning home from the pub along Primrose Valley fell asleep. When he woke in the morning somehow he was in a ten foot high gorse forest. For two days he tried to find his way out. Finally he attracted the attention of a walker by signalling with his cigarette lighter. The fire brigade tried to “garden” a tunnel to him but found it impossible so a helicopter was called to winch him out After a spell in hospital he made a full recovery.

The Friends of the Byes have planted patches of common gorse on the Bramble Bank. We promise that the gorse we have planted will be kept under control and never endanger passers-by!

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