Furze by any other name would smell as sweet

THE Cork and Kerry mountains were golden with gorse when we drove west last weekend, not Irish dwarf gorse, which displays its glory in September, but French gorse, the tall fellow which Goldsmith described, in The Deserted Village, as “blossom’d furze unprofitably gay ... ”.

Unprofitable, in terms of its commercial value (it wasn’t always so) but profitable to the eye, and to the image of Ireland, adorning, as it does in its season so many of our natural vistas, postcards and tourist brochures. It would be a duller world but for the gorse flowering “unprofitably gay”.

An old adage has it that somewhere there is always a sprig of gorse in flower: “Kissing is out of season when gorse is out of bloom”. And since love, like hope, “springs eternal in the human breast”, kissing is unlikely to ever stop, or gorse to flower.

No flowering plant is unprofitable, when one thinks of the colour it lends to the world. However, quite aside from garden weeds, there are some that we would prefer didn’t flower, didn’t drop seed, didn’t march forth and multiply.

I would number among these Japanese knotweed, the lacy flowerets of which are delicate and beautiful, at odds with the robustness of the plant, which can push its shoots through tarmacadam and asphalt, carparks and tennis courts.

Himalayan balsam, with gorgeous pink flowers and ‘exploding’ seeds, is another alien we could do without; also winter heliotrope, which I hear folk mistakenly call ‘coltsfoot’ because its leaves are shaped like a horse hoof. It produces its vanilla- smelling bloom when all other flowering plants are dormant, but flowers are few in proportion to the carpets of leaves it can generate, subsuming acres if left to thrive.

All of the above spread ‘exponentially’ (a popular word today) and suffocate all contenders among our native flora. So, they are unprofitable, for they allow no variety or diversity. And when there is no variety, all vistas like life itself, is dull.

French gorse, the tall variety, was so called because the Normans brought it to our shores, the Romans having brought it to Britain.

‘Furze’, they call it in West Cork, and ‘whins’, in Donegal. It was an alien deliberately introduced, valued as a fodder crop, edible for cattle and horses.

Machines for chopping and crushing the more tender shoots are still found in abandoned farmyards — Pearce of Wexford were the makers — although many have been given a second life as decorations for rustic restaurants or as antique roadside furniture.

Gorse was used for hedging, for thatching bothán, as bedding for animals, and for fuel. It burns like wildfire, as anyone who has ever seen a hillside in flames will know, and is spectacular on the western peninsulas where the hills on fire are reflected in the dark waters of fjord-like bays. If burnt after the linnets and stonechats that favour it for nesting have raised their broods, it does no harm, the ash fertilising the glorious, coconut-smelling flowers of the next year.

Farmers’ wives found green and flowering gorse bushes adjacent to the house useful for spreading out sheets to dry. The prickles held them from flying over the hill, and the flowers imbued them with subtle perfume. Fishermen swore by gorse for oar locks. ‘Gowlógs’ of gorse were immensely resilient; they bent with the sweep of the oar but didn’t fracture like other wood.

The heady, coconut scent of gorse is at its best on hot, midsummer days. It seems it has to cook a little to release its special unguent magic.

Decades ago, when I lived with my family in the Borlin Valley on the Cork-Kerry borders, and we could not afford the pub, we used gorse flowers to make country wine.

It was a lovely drink in September, a beaker full of the warm hillside in June. It had the scent of almonds.

Picking a bushel of flowers was no easy task, even for children’s nimble fingers. Inevitably, finger tips were pin-cushioned with tiny spines. As soon as we got home we’d soak them in piping hot water. Instant relief and joy! Perhaps such humble everyday things are our wealth.

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