How and where to forage for common gorse

Head outdoors with foraging expert Fraser Christian, to hunt for nature's spoils.

How and where to forage for common gorse

Also called golden gorse, whin, prickly broom and furze, gorse is native to the British Isles. Gorse can be found flowering from late autumn right through until early summer and is generally speaking at its best in early spring, when many plants are still lying dormant.

A common saying, ‘when gorse is out of flower, kissing is out of season’, inspired the practical custom of including a gorse spray in bridal bouquets in some parts of the country. Gorse is a herb of love and protection and has many old legends associated with it. More importantly, it makes an excellent wine!

Where you’ll find it
The name gorse is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘gorst’, denoting a waste place – its natural habitat. 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 and heathlands. It is 
also the largest species, reaching up to 
1.8 metres in height; this compares with typically 20-40cm for western gorse (Ulex gallii). Western gorse is replaced in the eastern part of Britain by dwarf furze (Ulex minor), a plant of about 30cm tall, characteristic of sandy lowland heathland.

How to identify it
The plant is a dense, much branched, stunted shrub. It is evergreen, but the leaves are very minute and fall off early, not being present in the older stages when they take the form of long, thread-like spines, which are straight and furrowed, or branching. The stem is hairy and spreading.

The golden-yellow flowers have a powerful coconut-scented perfume, filling the air. They open from early spring right up to August, or even later, but the bushes are to be found in blossom, here and there, practically all the year round.

How to forage it
The gorse bush is a veritable minefield of sharp spikes and the delicate little yellow flowers are well protected. As with most plants that have adequately armed themselves with such protection, I would always recommend wearing gloves for protecting your hands, but with the gorse it’s also a case of going slowly and carefully. You are looking to pick the flowering buds, pinching them out from their base, taking care not to crush them too much if possible. When you bruise the petals they have a light scent of ‘black coconut’. A basket that sits over one arm is useful and allows you to drop them in as you carefully harvest.

What you can do with it
Traditionally gorse has been used in a number of ways. Gorse flowers were used to make a decoction, favoured for its purging effect, treatments for scarlet fever, jaundice, ailments of the spleen and kidney stones. The bark and flowers produce a yellow dye that was used for wool and linen, and the seeds can be soaked and then applied as a flea repellent. Gorse flowers have been used to add extra flavour and colour to beer in Denmark, whisky in Ireland, and wine and tea in Britain.

Wild Forage

Wild Forage organises wild food and foraging courses along the seashore and in the countryside. Courses are run for small groups anywhere in the UK, plus individual courses in most southern counties. You can learn how to correctly identify and cook wild foods, as well as discover their medicinal and cosmetic qualities. For more info, visit www.wildforage.co.uk

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