I recall some time in the distant past having to put up with Wordsworth going on a bit about ‘golden’ daffodils. Saccharine sweet. They’re not even golden. More yellow really – similar to broom. Now for the colour of deep, rich, gold you can’t go past gorse.
I got to detest Wordsworth’s poem, pushed down the throat of the young. They should have used more e e cummings, Pablo Neruda, or some raging Dylan stuff – including Bob’s Hard Road and Desolation Row. Something to stir our blood and hormonal rage. We do *get* the sublime as children and teenagers, but it is a different form of sublime than hideously boring roses and daffodils. Mountains, streams, chasing small eels in the creek and balls on a field were our sublime.
So …… in praise of gorse – an ode to gorse if you like. It’s a prickly beast that is much maligned. I have a theory that we treat it as a weed because, historically, it has been the antithesis of what people saw as the more desirable land cover. What we particularly desired was grass. Lots of it. Everywhere.
Does it deserve the scorn? Perhaps, like hawthorn, it has its place. In the wrong place it can be an economic, environmental or social nuisance. But so can daffodils and two-legged naked apes according to some. So can ryegrass and radiata pine. The problem may not be the gorse so much as our particular prejudices and conventions.
Think of it as something that speaks about site, somethings that does many more things than regenerate on to doubtful quality pastures.
Furze is the ‘nice’ name for gorse. Some
New Zealand websites even advertise wooden ‘furze’ coasters set alongside platters and bowls made of Kauri and peach. A nice looking timber, and great firewood – which is why it burns so well when you put a match to it! Bakers used it of old, as they once used Silver Pine on the West Coast – a quick and hot burner. And the mineral and alkali rich ash was always recognised as a soil improver and soap maker. You can even dress up a salad and make tea with the flowers.
In Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels descriptions of cutting ‘furze’ from the common was more…well, common… than some old gaffer admiring daffodils. I don’t recall what they cut the stuff for, but presume it was for winter fodder (after ‘bruising’). Alternatives such as mattress stuffing don’t bear thinking about. Could it be?
Foresters argue that gorse is an excellent indicator of a good growth site for trees, suggesting deep soils and relatively good moisture content, whereas its cousin broom indicates shallow, dry and gutless soils. From a grazing perspective, the fact that some faces ‘degrade’ into gorse suggests that stock aren’t too keen on the topography or the tucker offered.
Farm foresters look a little askance at steep gullies being cleared at great cost for pasture, knowing that in ten years time it’ll likely be back, and in the meantime the return from pasture will be low. A complete waste of money often, encouraged by an obsession with a colonial expanse of one thing. Monocultural thinking, blind to the variation in patterns and connections within our landscapes – the different values and stories you can read by *not* seeing through only one myopic lens. Don’t start me on technocratic obsessions, please. Broader minded and multi-lensed farm foresters see gully gorse, a financial black hole in pasture, and think forests.
Is the real economic pest the gorse, or the ideas and conventions that encourage a debatable way of looking at land and landscapes? I very much believe the latter.
Beekeepers also look askance at gorse haters. Ivan Dickinson from Clover Land Apiaries in Milton once told me that gorse is the vital early season provider of protein-rich pollen. And it keeps producing pollen right through to autumn. Where there isn’t gorse handy, the beekeepers sometimes have to supplement the hives. Alas, no honey to speak of. A bit of a dry well there.
A few of the local Otago savants have taken a great interest in gorse. Dr Jill Hamel planted macrocarpa through her furze patch above Purakanui Inlet. It wasn’t the done thing at the time, radiata pine being the only tree species thought vigorous enough. Jill even studied the growth rates of this charming shrub. The stuff grows fast, 1.5 metres after two years on her site, and up to seven metre high after 25 years in other studies done by Dr Ralph Allen and Peter Johnson. At that age it gets the title ‘old man’, and it’s near death, and becomes of interest for native tree regeneration provided the litter layer is not too thick and dry, and there is light available as the gorse crowns start to open. A number of people around Otago, including the late Les Cleveland, were actively underplanting their gorse with natives as an alternative to the match and the bulldozer.
A great soil improver as well, a nitrogen fixer and organic matter depositor, all while keeping the soil in place on steep slopes and keeping the streams clear of run-off.
I used to look out on the truly golden faces of Mt Cargill in the spring. I know that it was a furzy face of gold I saw. Today I like daffodils – I accepted in the days following youth that they can be sublime – especially because they are harbingers of spring. But so is flowering gorse. Gorse says more than let us welcome the spring. It is saying something about the landscape. Stock don’t like it here. That’s why I’ve regenerated. Call me a messenger – a Hermes, a Mercury – I’m letting you know this is a great place for a forest. You can enrich me with a kowhai, a wild cherry and some tree lucerne to bring in the native birds from the surrounding native bush, and the kereru will come and spread their seed. Or interplant me as I grow old if you have the stomach.
Just don’t put a match to me unless you’re baking bread.
Edited version first published in the Otago Daily Times in January 2005.