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Ulex (gorse, furze or whin) is a genus of flowering plants in the family Fabaceae. The genus comprises about 20 species of thorny evergreen shrubs in the subfamily Faboideae of the pea family Fabaceae. The species are native to parts of western Europe and northwest Africa, with the majority of species in Iberia.
Gorse is closely related to the brooms, and like them, has green stems and very small leaves and is adapted to dry growing conditions. However it differs in its extreme thorniness, the shoots being modified into branched thorns 1–4 centimetres (0.39–1.57 in) long, which almost wholly replace the leaves as the plant's functioning photosynthetic organs. The leaves of young plants are trifoliate, but in mature plants they are reduced to scales or small spines. All the species have yellow flowers, generally showy, some with a very long flowering season.
The most widely familiar species is common gorse (Ulex europaeus), the only species native to much of western Europe, where it grows in sunny sites, usually on dry, sandy soils. It is also the largest species, reaching 2–3 metres (7–10 ft) in height; this compares with typically 20–40 centimetres (7.9–15.7 in) for Western Gorse (Ulex gallii). This latter species is characteristic of highly exposed Atlantic coastal heathland and montane habitats. In the eastern part of Great Britain, dwarf furze (Ulex minor) replaces western gorse. Ulex minor grows only about 30 centimetres (12 in) tall, a habit characteristic of sandy lowland heathland.
Common gorse flowers a little in late autumn and through the winter, coming into flower most strongly in spring. Western Gorse and Dwarf Furze flower in late summer (August-September in Ireland and Great Britain|Britain). Between the different species, some gorse is almost always in flower, hence the old country phrase: "When gorse is out of blossom, kissing's out of fashion". Gorse flowers have a distinctive coconut scent, experienced very strongly by some individuals, but weakly by others.
Gorse may grow as a fire-climax plant, well adapted to encourage and withstand fires, being highly flammable, and having seed pods that are to a large extent opened by fire, thus allowing rapid regeneration after fire. The burnt stumps also readily sprout new growth from the roots. Where fire is excluded, gorse soon tends to be shaded out by taller-growing trees, unless other factors like exposure also apply. Typical fire recurrence periods in gorse stands are 5–20 years.
Gorse thrives in poor growing areas and conditions including drought; it is sometimes found on very rocky soils, where many species cannot thrive. Moreover, it is widely used for land reclamation (e.g., mine tailings), where its nitrogen-fixing capacity helps other plants establish better.
Gorse is a valuable plant for wildlife, providing dense thorny cover ideal for protecting bird nests. In Britain, France and Ireland, it is particularly noted for supporting Dartford Warblers (Sylvia undata) and European Stonechats (Saxicola rubicola); the common name of the Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) attests to its close association with gorse. The flowers are sometimes eaten by the caterpillars of the Double-striped Pug moth (Gymnoscelis rufifasciata), while those of the case-bearer moth Coleophora albicosta feed exclusively on gorse. The dry wood of dead gorse stems provides food for the caterpillars of the concealer moth Batia lambdella.
In many areas of North America (notably California and Oregon), southern South America, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii, the common gorse, introduced as an ornamental plant or hedge, has become an invasive species due to its aggressive seed dispersal; it has proved very difficult to eradicate and detrimental in native habitats. Common gorse is also an invasive species in the montane grasslands of Horton Plains National Park in Sri Lanka.
Gorse readily becomes dominant in suitable conditions, and where this is undesirable for agricultural or ecological reasons control is required, either to remove gorse completely, or to limit its extent. Gorse stands are often managed by regular burning or flailing, allowing them to regrow from stumps or seed. Denser areas of gorse may be bulldozed.
Gorse flowers are edible and can be used in salads, tea and to make a non-grape-based fruit wine.
As fodder, gorse is high in protein and may be used as feed for livestock, particularly in winter when other greenstuff is not available. Traditionally it was used as fodder for cattle, being made palatable either by "bruising" (crushing) with hand-held mallets, or grinding to a moss-like consistency with hand- or water-driven mills, or being finely chopped and mixed with straw chaff. Gorse is also eaten as forage by some livestock, such as feral ponies, which may eat little else in winter. Ponies may also eat the thinner stems of burnt gorse.
Gorse bushes are highly flammable, and in many areas bundles of gorse were used to fire traditional bread ovens.
Gorse wood has been used to make small objects; being non-toxic, it is especially suited for cutlery. In spite of its durability it is not used for construction because the plant is too small and the wood is unstable, being prone to warping. Gorse is useful for garden ornaments because it is resistant to weather and rot.
Gorse has been listed as one of the 38 plants that are used to prepare Bach flower remedies, a kind of alternative medicine promoted for its effect on health. However according to Cancer Research UK, "there is no scientific evidence to prove that flower remedies can control, cure or prevent any type of disease, including cancer".
Gorse in popular culture
In Thomas Hardy's novel The Return of the Native, when Clym is partially blinded through excessive reading, he becomes a furze-cutter on Egdon Heath, to the dismay of his wife, Eustacia. In the book, the timeless, gorse-covered heath is described in each season of the novel's year-and-a-day timeline and becomes symbolic of the greater nature of mankind.
Its flammability rendered gorse symbolic as quickly flammable and quickly burning out; for example, Doyle, in his book "Sir Nigel" has Sir John Chandos say: "...They flare up like a furzebush in the flames, but if for a short space you may abide the heat of it, then there is a chance that it may be cooler... If the Welsh be like the furze fire, then, pardieu! the Scotch are the peat, for they will smolder and you will never come to the end of them."
In The second book of Tolkien's "Lord of the rings" trilogy, "The Two Towers", Frodo and Sam led by Gollum walked underneath very old and tall thickets of gorse on their way to pass by Minas Morgul. 
In "Red Doc>", Anne Carson's 2013 sequel to her 1998 novel-in-verse entitled "Autobiography of Red", the protagonist, G, owns a herd of musk oxen who like to feed on gorse; one ox in particular, Io, eats gorse flowers and hallucinates that she can fly.
In The Lives of Christopher Chant Diana Wynne Jones has her eponymous character taking a walk with his tutor through a gorse thicket on a rainy day.
- A R Clapham, T G Tutin, E F Warburg, Flora of the British Isles, Cambridge, 1962, p 331
- "Gorse". Plantlife International. Retrieved 14 March 2011.
- Moore, Charles (28 September 2009). "Richard Mabey, a writer dropping down to see the natural world". The Telegraph. Retrieved 14 March 2011.
- Pausas et al. (2011) Fires enhance flammability in Ulex parviflorus. New Phytologist
- Plants for a Future, database entry for Ulex europaeus
- C. Michael Hogan (2008) Catto Long Barrow fieldnotes, The Modern Antiquarian
- Lalith Gunasekera, Invasive Plants: A guide to the identification of the most invasive plants of Sri Lanka, Colombo 2009, p. 88–89.
- "Experimental Archaeology Site at Tunstall". Suffolk County Council. "We have tried different woods as fuel to see which is most efficient and our favourite is dead gorse, collected locally and a dominant species on the sandy soils in this area. Analysis of woods used in the Roman salt industry that took place on the estuary a mile away shows they were using the same fuel."
- D. S. Vohra (1 June 2004). Bach Flower Remedies: A Comprehensive Study. B. Jain Publishers. p. 3. ISBN 978-81-7021-271-3. Retrieved 2 September 2013.
- "Flower remedies". Cancer Research UK. Retrieved September 2013.
- Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan; Sir Nigel; Pub:Smith, Elder & Co. London, 1906
- Milne, A.A. Winnie the Pooh, Chapter 1.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, Chapter VII; Pub: Houghton Mifflin Company Boston / New York 1954...1982
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