Dec/Jan/Feb 1997/8                    111

Flowering Scilly

"A token to the wintry earth that beauty liveth still."

In Winter Time a Golden Blanket

We are fortunate that in winter many flowers still bloom, one of which is the Common Gorse, the Ulex europaeus of the leguminosae family.  A few sparse blooms brighten the Christmas scene, but become more prolific as the New Year advances, until the heathlands and hillsides are covered with a golden blanket in early spring.  This continues until summer when seeding occurs and the variety Western Gorse, Ulex gallii, takes over until the end of the year.
Both have similar appearances with a deep yellow pea-like f lower consisting of two lower petals fused into a keel-shape, two winged side petals and a large standard petal sailing above.  Should an insect touch the petals, they spring back forcing out a shower of pollen.  At seeding time pods burst with such violent explosions that on dry sunny days the air is filled with a barrage of noise, line pop-guns being continuously fired, as little round seeds are catapulted far and wide.
The summer Western Gorse is the smaller of the two, barely reaching one and a half metres overall.  The curved and slightly furrowed small spines tend to become enmeshed, giving the whole plant a lumpy appearance.  The Winter Gorse is a much larger bush and can reach two and a half metres, with large, straight and deeply furrowed spines. In both cases these spines, which replace normal leaves, reduce transpiration as the habitat is normally dry and often open and windswept.  All gorse flowers have a rich perfume redolent of the coconut chips sweets of our childhood.  The name gorse is derived from the Anglo-Saxon 'gorst', denoting a waste place, its natural habitat.  The specific botanical names clearly denote the area of growth, europaeus, Europe in general, and gallii, the west of the country.  The generic part was supposedly bestowed upon it by the first century Roman botanist, Pliny, who said its densely spined branches were used in certain rivers as a kind of sieve for gold seekers.  An alternative suggestion was that it was derived from the old Celtic/Gaelic of 'Uile', meaning 'all' and 'ec', meaning a sharp point or prickle.  A plant so widespread inevitably had many country names; whin, fuzz, vuzz, fingers and thumbs, and pins and needles to name but a few.

Culinary uses are lacking except as the basis for gorse wine and tea and the buds either picked or used as 'nibbles'.  Medical uses appear to be as sparse, although Culpeper wrote in the mid-seventeenth century that it "opens obstructions of the liver and spleen.  A decoction made with the flowers has been found effective against the jaundice, to provoke urine and to cleanse the kidneys from gravel or stones engendered in them.".  I found also two veterinary references, gorse being "used as a vermicide and de-wormer of horses"!

More general uses were made of gorse.  Before the developing spines had time to harden and were still soft, they were crushed and used as cattle fodder, particularly in winter when other food was scarce.  Together with a country belief that butter yellow flowers had magical properties for cattle, this led to the custom of carrying blazing branches round the herd at midsummer to encourage milk yields and to ensure good health for the coming year.  To wear a sprig of gorse or to place it over house doorways on Mayday would ward off witchcraft and sometimes a small piece would be included in bridal bouquets.  Gorse could be put into mole-runs to rid the land of nuisance moles.  In dyeing, a yellow colour could be obtained from the flowers and a warm brown from the plant as a whole.  A well chosen stump could make a walking stick.

Strong roots of gorse would bind loose soil and, with a liking for old stones, circular patches of the plants can indicate the sites of burial chambers.  Research suggests that gorse was growing on Scilly in the second and third centuries, but Algernon Dorrien-Smith is credited with planting it extensively to provide shelter and protect the plants and trees of the gardens on Tresco.  Other uses included fencing, thatching and fuel.  Before the widespread use of coal it was used for brick and lime-kilns, as well as bakers' ovens, because it burned with great heat.  A local gentleman who lived in an old farmhouse with a big open fire described how on baking day "Grandma Mary would start the fire with sycamore twigs, followed by elm and finally roots of furze which would be the best for bread baking." The ash from the fire made an excellent dressing for poor acid soils or was mixed with clay as a soap substitute for scouring.

Once, in the absence of a sweep, we cleaned our chimney in the old way.  Our geese, with great foresight, went absent, as one old method was to drop a goose down the chimney, when flapping wings would dislodge the soot.  On the instructions of our neighbour, we resorted instead to a gorse branch, attaching it to a large brick with a piece of rope.  Once the brick was dropped down to the hearth, the bush could be hauled down after it.  Being novices, we omitted to have a second rope, held by the helper on the roof, should the bush stick in the chimney and need to be hauled up again.  The inevitable result was that the soot came down, but the bush stuck firmly halfway!

Finally, in the language of flowers gorse denotes "Love for all seasons." This is probably a later variation on the old country saying "Kissing's out of season, when the gorse is not in bloom." With the two gorses, winter and summer, you should always find gorse in bloom somewhere on Scilly.  Why wait for the mistletoe at Christmas?  Kissing is always in season on Scilly!

A very
Julia Ottery
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