By Calvin Jones
The term gorse refers to a group of spiny, evergreen shrubs that belong to the pea family and are native to Western Europe, the Mediterranean and North Africa. They are hardy, vigorous plants that thrive in relatively inhospitable conditions, and are so successful that they are now classed as invasive weeds in many parts of the world where species have been introduced. Gorse is also known as furze or whin.
Here in Ireland we have two native gorse species: the practically ubiquitous common gorse (Ulex europaeus), which is found throughout the country, and the western or mountain gorse (U. gallii), which tends to replace it’s bulkier cousin on the exposed Atlantic coasts of the west.
Both our gorse species prefer relatively infertile, lime-free soils. Like other members of the pea family, they are able to fix nitrogen from the air, an adaptation that allows them to thrive in relatively infertile soil conditions, and gives them a considerable competitive advantage over rival plant species. Gorse flourishes on bright, exposed heathland, and its bright yellow flowers add a welcome splash of colour to the Irish landscape.
The common gorse is a dense, dull green shrub that typically grows to between two and three metres (6.5 – 10 ft) high. Its leaves are modified to form rigid, furrowed spines, often with smaller spines protruding along their length. The western gorse is smaller, reaching between 50cm and 1.5 metres (1.5 – 5 ft) with slightly curved, darker green spines that show much less prominent furrowing.