Gorse

(Ulex europaeus) Gorse is the standard English name for this shrub, Furze being a regional name (Jones & Dillon), while the other common name, Whin, is confined to those parts of Britain that were under Scandinavian occupation in times past. There is an old rhyme highlighting the difference in habitat of the gorse and broom:

Under the gorse is hunger and cold,

Under the broom is silver and gold (Northall).

There seems to be no great unanimity about that, though. One of Roy Vickery's informants from Cumbria mentioned a local saying: "where there's bracken there's gold; where there's gorse there's silver; where there's heather there's poverty" (Vickery. 1995). It is upgraded even more in County Kerry; the Gaelic saying is translated "gold under furze, silver under rushes and famine under heath" (Lucas).

There are equally mixed views about the "luck" of the flowers. A typical west country belief (though not confined to that area, apparently) is that it is very unlucky to take gorse into the house, just as unlucky as hawthorn, say, or lilac, for "to carry furze flowers into the house - carrying death for one of the family" (Opie & Tatem), and there are other similar sayings of the "gorse in, coffin out" variety. Giving the flowers to someone is also unlucky, but without such dire results. But the act would be bound to provoke a quarrel between the two people involved in a short time (Vickery. 1995). Or, in Scotland, it is said to be a sign of anger if gorse is given (Simpkins). Indeed, in the language of flowers, gorse is the symbol of anger; but at the same time it symbolizes love for all seasons, and enduring affection (Leyel. 1937), for is it not said that "kissing is out of fashion when the whin is out of bloom" (Nicholson), or its Scottish equivalent, "when the gorse is oot o' bloom, kissin's oot o' fashion" (Simpkins), for isn't gorse in bloom virtually the whole year through? And there is another Scottish proverb to emphasise the point:

When the whin gangs out of bloom

Will mean the end of Edinburgh town(Addison).

A story from Guernsey amplifies the view; a man on his death-bed asked his wife not to marry again while the furze was in bloom (MacCulloch). In Poitou, France, they ask the question "En quelle saison l'ajonc n'est-il pas en fleur?" The reply is "A l'époque ou les femmes ne sont pas amoureuses". In Brittany, to promise to love while the furze is in bloom is to promise to love forever (Sebillot). All this underlines the old country custom of putting a spray of gorse in the bridal bouquet (Grieve. 1931), and a Somerset version of the wedding dress rhyme runs:

Something old, Something new, Something borrowed, Something blue And a sprig of vuz.

For the belief is that it brings gold to the house (Raymond).

There are other superstitions that hint at a deeper level of belief, such as the Irish saying that carrying a sprig of furze on the person will save the traveller from getting lost (Wood-Martin), and the plant forms part of the "summer" brought in on May Day in County Cork. At May Day, and also at Midsummer, furze bushes were burned to protect cows and crops (O Suilleabhain), and it was also used to hang over the door on May Day "to keep luck in the house" (Wood-Martin), or it was stuck in the roof, for the same reason (Lucas). It is significant too that according to Welsh belief, the fairies cannot penetrate a hedge of furze (Sikes), implying that it is more than the prickles that keep them out. The plant had some significance in Devonshire Christmas festivities, too, for they had a version of the "kissing bush" that involved a small furze bush, dipped in water, powdered in flour, and studded all over with holly berries (Whitlock. 1977).

In the Hebrides, it is said that the result of cows eating the young shoots is a rich yellow colour in the butter (Murdoch McNeill), and a yellow dye can be got from the bark (Jenkins. 1966). The flowers were widely used for colouring Easter eggs yellow (A R Wright, Gill. 1963), but the best known and most widespread use of the plant was as fuel, especially for firing baking ovens (Dacombe, Carew). It was used in Ireland, too, for domestic fuel, and it was actually brought into the city for sale there at one time; indeed, in parts of County Carlow, faggoting (a faggot being furze tied in bundles by briar bands) was a regular trade (Lucas). It was actually cultivated, at least into the 19th century, for fuel and fodder. It was cut with some ceremony in certain areas. The West Briton for 30 July 1858 reported that gorse harvesting (for fuel) was still carried out on the Lizard peninsula then. The fuel was carried in trusses on horseback, the truss being a large bundle bound round with ropes, raised on end by putting a pole through it, and raised to the horse's back, which was completely covered with coarse cloth, animal skins being once used. The custom was called "leading furze" (Barton. 1972). When cut and dried it changed its name to 'bavin' (Grindon). One of the oddest late harvests was that of gorse and fern on Berkhamstead Common, in Hertfordshire.

No cutting was allowed before 1st September, but by tradition people gathered on the common late on the night before. They listened for the chimes of St Peter's Church, over a mile away, and on the stroke of midnight the cutters pegged out their claims, and returned at daybreak to do the actual cutting (JonesBaker. 1977). It was just as important in Yorkshire, and especially important for the poor, who were often allowed special access to land to use the gorse, or sometimes furzy land was set aside for the poor, even after enclosure (Harris). There are examples, too, of more industrial use of gorse as a fuel, for brick making, for instance, or for lime burning.

It used to be equally important as feed for horses and cows, the former in particular, after the prickles were dealt with, of course. There were special gorse-cutters in Wales (gordd eithin), heavy mallets with cruciform blades (Davies & Edwards), and later, gorse mills were installed, some of which are still in existence, if only as museum specimens. But it is the young shoots that are particularly succulent for stock, after the old foliage is burned off, and the cows put into the gorse land when the consequent new shoots appear. This was particularly the case in Ireland (Ulster farmers said that an animal fed on whins would never be content with grass again (St Clair)), but it was common Welsh practice as well. The gorse was grown especially for the purpose, and called either eithin ffrengig, French gorse, or eithin bras coarse gorse. On some farms, a field of gorse was regarded as being as valuable as a field of hay. Pembrokeshire children were often given the job of collecting gorse seed, and gorse sales were commonplace in the 19th century -one year old gorse commanded quite a high price (Jenkins. 1976).

Its other uses include that of stopping a gap in a fence or hedge just by putting a bush in the opening, or by using it as a dead hedge to protect the base of a haystack from damp (Harris). In the south of Ireland it was employed as a quick hedge too. At the beginning of the 19th century fences there were either stone walls topped with earth, and furze growing on it, or banks of earth only, similarly planted (Lucas). It was used in cottage building sometimes - Flora Thompson described the way furze and daub was employed for the walls. A further use was for bedding for animals. A layer was well firmed by trampling, and straw put on top of that (Lucas). The commoners of Ashdown Forest, in Sussex, had the right to cut sticks out of gorse bushes. They would bundle them up and sell them to umbrella makers to make handles (Sargent).

There is a very ancient regard for gorse, particularly the seed, as a means of getting rid of fleas. An Anglo-Saxon version of Dioscorides is translated (by Cockayne): "Against fleas, take this wort with its seed, sprinkle it into the house; it killeth the fleas". Something similar was being advised in the 15th century:

"For fleas and lice to slay them. Take gorse and seethe it in water, and sprinkle that water about the house, and they will die" (Dawson). In more recent times, it has been used in medicine for scarlet fever, and also jaundice, the latter surely being the result of the doctrine of signatures (yellow flowers to cure the yellow disease). The flower infusion is an old Wiltshire remedy for dropsy (Wiltshire). The green tops featured in many a Highlands cough medicine (Grant), as it was in Ireland too (Maloney), whooping cough as well (St Clair). It was also used there for asthma, by steeping it overnight and drinking the water, and furze used to be the agent in an Irish worm cure, both for children and horses. In the first case, it was enough to boil a handful of the flowers in milk, and give that to the child to drink (Vickery. 1995). For horses the tops were cut and pounded on a block, and this would be given to the horse, often with a pint of linseed oil (Logan).

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