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How gorse has become the natives’ friend

“Kissing’s in season when the furze is in bloom,” is a favourite expression.

Furze is the name for gorse in the West Country of England where I grew up, and the rest of the sentence is self-explanatory.

Luckily with the three slightly different species of gorse growing in England there is nearly always a flower to be found somewhere on any day of the year.

Ulex europaeus is the gorse we love to hate, but in England there are two other species – U. gallii and U. minor that we don’t seem to have here in New Zealand, but they extend the flowering and the kissing season.

Gorse does have some other qualities though most farmers would disagree. Let’s stick with the good qualities for now. Gorse flowers picked carefully make a heady wine worthy of the term “heady”. They need to be picked carefully because of the sharp spines that impede your hand at every turn. Even these thorns have been turned to good use as gorse makes an excellent hedge to contain animals. That was why the plant was brought here to New Zealand and you can still see viable gorse hedges in Canterbury.

Here in Taranaki early settlers in the Omata area planted gorse hedges and that’s why we see it everywhere now.

When grown as a hedge, it can be trimmed to keep it dense and bushy and to make the bush live longer. If it’s allowed to grow without trimming it tends to grow too quickly and die out in a warm climate like ours. So in some ways the easiest way to be rid of gorse is to leave it alone, though this obviously doesn’t work in pasture.

When we lived in Lower Hutt the council would organise a controlled burnoff to get rid of the gorse on the eastern hills. Annual fireworks also had the same effect.

Anyway this was really fortunate for the gorse as the tired old plants were probably close to fading away, and then the fire stimulated millions of seed lying in the ground to germinate.

Gorse, like many legumes, has a hard seedcoat that needs to be worn down in some way before it can imbibe water and grow. Time wears the seedcoat down but fire is much quicker and so just a few weeks after the fire the ground is a mass of seedling gorse no thicker than the hairs on a dog’s back.

The seeds can live in the ground for 70 years or more, so you will never get rid of gorse in your lifetime.

Eventually it dawned on the authorities in Lower Hutt that the gorse should be left to die out naturally and then the native plants would establish and eventually dominate.

It was interesting to watch how, over a period of years, the native shrubs emerged through the gorse in the bottoms of the valleys and gullies, and then gradually worked their way up the slope every year until eventually the hillside was all natives. Actually gorse is a terrific pioneer or nurse plant for more long-lived woody plants like our native trees. A thicket of gorse binds the soil and prevents erosion from heavy rain.

Gorse like any pioneer plant needs maximum sunlight and as it thins out, other seedlings are able to grow in among it in the patches of light.

The gorse protects them from wind and too much sun until they get firmly established and as they grow higher they gradually shade out and kill the gorse.

When gorse dies it leaves a brilliant mulch of dead wood and needles that is a perfect seed bed for other plants. It’s friable and so loose you can dig it with your hands.

Gorse also helps the land in other important ways. Being a legume it captures nitrogen from the atmosphere and turns it into a form of nitrogen other plants can use in the soil. The ground is full of nutrients after a crop of gorse.

They also improve the soil in physical ways by having such deep penetrating roots. If ever you have occasion to pull up a gorse plant you’ll be amazed at just how long the main tap root is.

The deep holes left by the dead roots improve the drainage of solid clay soils. These amazingly long roots are the reason the plant can grow on a dust dry clay bank, because they quickly search out any source of moisture.

The leading root is usually as long as the top green portion of the plant, so they quickly grow to a stage where you can’t pull them out.

Thinking about their long tap roots; several years ago I visited the famous Eden Gardens Project in Cornwall where gorse is native to the region and cherished by the locals.

If you’ve been there you know the garden is down in a crater and you have to park way up on the hillside and then walk down the road. I’m wandering along and spotted a gorse seedling, and naturally bent down and pulled it out. It’s just force of habit at home. Then a few paces on I spotted another and yanked it out, then another and another, and finally it dawned on me they were planted! Whoops.

Cooler regions like England where you see gorse covering large tracts of waste moorland it’s still treasured for the natural part of the environment that it is and it’s even planted for show and sold in garden centres. And generally it grows to more modest proportions, around waist high rather than way above your head.

Whether you like gorse here in New Zealand depends on whether you’re a farmer or a conservationist. From a farming perspective, it’s an awful weed and should be eliminated. But in the conservation estate it does have its uses.