Gorse is a very common shrub in the UK. It is often found on coastal cliffs or high bleak moorland, but it basically grows anywhere that you let it. It has wonderful bright yellow flowers.
The most common type of gorse is common gorse, Ulex europaeus, but it is also known as furze or whin. On older well established plants the prickles are fearsome. One unfortunate gentleman fell into a 10 foot high gorse bush, apparently he had, “… been out on Saturday night consuming various substances.” He remained entangled for two days before being discovered and winched out by helicopter! This makes for a very safe nesting place for small birds, such as the whinchat, and a good hideout for many insects. These prickles are modified leaves and help the plant retain moisture in harsh exposed areas.
Gorse used to be grown and then ground up to produce animal feed as it is high in protein. It was also useful hedging material to keep livestock in, or indeed grown around other crops or young saplings to keep herbivores out. Being a member of the pea family it is also a good nitrogen fixer. Bacteria in the roots turn nitrogen from the air into nitrates in exchange for carbohydrates. This means that it can thrive in poor soil, but then eventually by releasing its nitrogen back into the soil it improves it for other species.
There is a fascinating article, with great photos, that you can read here, “Blooming Gorse.” It explains how when a bee lands on the gorse flower it triggers the flower opening. The stamens spring out, lifting the bee aloft and dusting it with pollen. The style pokes the bee in the tummy collecting pollen from a previous flower. All very dramatic!
There are two other types of gorse; Western and Dwarf. These all flower at different times, which means there is pretty much always gorse flowering somewhere. So the old expression, “When gorse is out of blossom, kissing’s out of fashion” isn’t something to be too concerned about.