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Gorse. Photo Richard BurkmarrGorse. Photo Richard Burkmarr

By Dyane Silvester

Gorse, also known as furze or whin, is one of Cumbria's iconic plants.

It blazes yellow across Lake District fields and hills pretty much year-round. Walking on a hot summer's day you will be assailed by its slightly musty, coconut scent, and if you listen you can hear the seed pods popping (when they do, they can throw their seeds up to 10m away).

There are about 20 species of gorse, two of which we will be familiar with: common gorse which is larger, and flowers all year, and western gorse; slightly smaller and tends to flower in the late summer and colonises exposed coastal areas more than the fells. Most Gorse species thrive on the poor, well drained soils which cover such huge areas of Cumbria and the Lake District.

Have you ever noticed that mature gorse actually has no leaves? As a young plant, it has trifoliate leaves, but as it matures these drop and instead it grows dense prickles. These spines function as leaves – in that they still contain the chlorophyll which photosynthesises sunlight – and their hard outer surface reduces moisture loss, which is important for plants in dry places.

It is traditionally used as fodder for animals, since over winter other foods may be difficult to come by; it would be made palatable by being bruised or milled. The flowers are actually edible to humans and can be used to garnish salads, or to make a light wine.

Since it grows into dense thickets, often impenetrable to large animals. Gorse provides excellent shelter for birds (notably stonechats and whinchats) and small animals. Many moth caterpillars also feed on the flowers and woody stems.

We don't see moorland fires as a good thing, but gorse loves them since it is heat that bursts open its seed-pods. The young plants grow quickly in the debris of fire, and new shoots also sprout from the old root-stock. It might be due to this tenacity that gorse is connected, in folklore, with perseverance and hope. Celtic lore considers gorse a protective barrier; it was planted around houses to keep the Sidhe (fairy folk) away, and shaped into a brush to sweep away negative influences.

So next time you're striding out on the Lake District hills and some prickles catch your trousers, take a moment to consider at this amazing plant and its place in our landscape.

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