Gorse (Ulex spp.)
There is an old saying: ‘kissing’s out of season when gorse is out of bloom‘ and fortunately this is very rarely, as you can nearly always find at least a few flowers on a gorse bush. Even in the depths of winter it is still possible to find a bush in full bloom, which will provide a welcome floral addition to the winter menu. Gorse flowers can be used simply as an edible decoration or made into cordials and wine.
It seems surprising that gorse decides to flower so forcefully when many other plants don’t even dare to poke their heads above ground, but there is method to this floral madness. Flowers and insects evolved alongside one another; insects take food from flowers and in return assist in sexual reproduction by cross pollinating between plants. So why does gorse insist on flowering when there are so few insects buzzing around? Gorse is one of many plants that is able to self-pollinate by creating clones of itself, and it does so in winter to avoid pests nibbling it’s seeds. What it loses in genetic diversity it gains in seed survival.
Gorse is a member of the Pea family, although you this may seem unlikely at first due to its large spiky leaves that have little in common with other members of the family. However, once you know what you are looking for the connection becomes clearer. The flowers of gorse have the characteristic features of Pea family flowers, referred to as the banner, wings and keel. The gorse in the picture is not the best example as it contains more petals than usual for a pea family flower, although the features can still be seen.
After examining a few different members of the Pea family these features should soon be easy to spot. Once spring arrives there will be plenty of clover, broad beans and sweet peas to compare gorse flowers to.
Gorse is common on heath and moor land and other areas with nutrient poor soils, and it is a great survivor of fires. Also, for the urban forager, it can often be found in supermarket car parks.
Needless to say, watch out for the prickles when you are picking gorse – a little patience goes a long way.