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Gorse – symbol of love and fertility

Gorse, also known as furze, is a sweet scented, yellow flowered, spiny evergreen shrub that flowers all year round.

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In fact, there are several species of gorse that flower at different times of the year making it a much-loved plant for the bees and giving it the appearance of being in bloom all year long. There is an old saying that goes, “When the gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season.”

Gorse Tree. Image copyright Ireland Calling

Gorse is often associated with love and fertility. It was for this reason that a sprig of gorse was traditionally added to a bride’s bouquet and gorse torches were ritually burned around livestock to protect against sterility. However, one should never give gorse flowers to another as a gift for it is unlucky for both the giver and receiver.

Beltane bonfires

Gorse wood was used as very effective tinder. It has a high oil content which means it burns at a similar high temperature to charcoal. The ashes of the burnt gorse were high in alkali and used to make soap when mixed with animal fat.

Onn, meaning gorse, is the 17th letter of the ogham alphabet. It equates to the English letter O.

In Celtic tradition, gorse was one of the sacred woods burned on the Beltane bonfires, probably the one that got them started. It was a shrub associated with the spring equinox and the Celtic god of light, Lugh, doubtlessly because of its ever blooming vibrant yellow flowers.

In Brittany, the Celtic summer festival of Lughnastdagh, named after the god, was known as the Festival of Golden Gorse.

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Flowers used in wine and whiskey

The flowers have a distinct vanilla-coconut aroma and are edible with an almond-like taste. They can be eaten raw on salads or pickled like capers. They have also been used to make wine and to add colour and flavour to Irish whiskey. However, consuming the flowers in great numbers can cause an upset stomach due to the alkalis they contain.

The prickly nature of gorse gave it a protective reputation, specifically around livestock. As well as providing an effective hedgerow, gorse made an acceptable flea repellent and the plant was often milled to make animal fodder.

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