by Ian Brand

SPRING is coming, metrologically starting on 1st March! As proof gorse or Furze(Ulex europaeus) is increasingly coming into flower on the lower slopes of Rombolds Moor, reaching a crescendo in April, in a blaze of golden yellow, with that faint scent of coconut. However, do not just enjoy this plant in spring, but stand quietly in the centre of a thicket on a warm summer’s day and listen for the repeated “clicks”, as the pods crack open releasing their seeds. In fact whatever month of the year you pass by a gorse bush there are likely to be a few random blooms in flower even in the depths of winter, hence the expression “When Gorse is in flower, kissing is in season”.

Gorse is a member of the pea family (Fabaceae), and has the typical pea flower structure with five petals; an upper “standard”, two side or lateral petals “wings” and two lower petals forming a boat-like structure “keel”.

The flower is remarkably well adapted for insect pollination, and deserves a design award. Unlike most of the pea family, visiting bees will find only pollen (the bees’ protein). Foraging spring bees will have to look elsewhere to other flowers for nectar (the bees’ carbohydrate).

The two keels and two wing petals together form a landing platform for insects. The keel petals are held together by notches and form a closed chamber forcibly holding down the ten stamens and single style and stigma. When a bee lands on the flower to collect pollen, its weight pushes the petals apart so that the stamens and stigma spring up and hit its belly. The stigma being longer than the stamens, hits the bee’s abdomen first and receives any pollen that it is already carrying. The stamens come up behind and deposit a fresh load of pollen for the next flower visited. The mechanism is known as “tripping”, and in Gorse, the flower will remain open once tripped so you can see (as well as the bees) which flowers have already been visited. You could try “tripping” a flower yourself with your fingertip, to see how this amazing biological mechanism works.

Gorse is not just a clever, attractive flower; our ancestors found multiple uses for it, perhaps the most common of which was its use as a fuel for bakers in a furze oven. Once the oven was hot, it was brushed out and the dough placed on the oven floor. It is possibly the origin of the expression “Upper Crust”; with the wealthy having the upper loaf or crust; and the poor the lower part of the loaf covered in ash and cinders.