This iconic, scruffy-looking, prickly shrub loves wild landscapes, and smells like coconut! Gorse is a member of the pea family and a native to the British Isles. It’s also a very noisy, exploding self-seeder and a major floral overachiever – flowers most of the year, but peaks in April and May when the bright yellow blossoms cover the whole plant.
As well as bringing grown men to tears, gorse provides an important habitat for birds, reptiles and many invertebrates. The abundant flowers are a valuable source of nectar and pollen for beneficial insects, especially during the hungry gap months.
There are three species that can be found Western, Dwarf and Common. The flowers from the Common Gorse is what you want to harvest. Their delicate, sweet, coconutty fragrance and flavour translates into lots of delicious drinks and desserts.
Seasonal period: The best time to harvest gorse flowers is now until early summer.
Where to find them: Motorway embankments, moorlands, harsh landscapes, sunny sights, sandy soil and wasteland.
How to recognise: The stunted plant is dense and has lots of branches. It is evergreen, but the leaves are very minute and fall off early, not being present in the older stages when they take the form of long, thread-like spines, which are straight and furrowed, or branching. The stem is hairy and spreading. The golden-yellow flowers have a distinctive coconut-scented perfume, filling the air.
What to eat: Flower buds
Cleaning and storing: Remove all twigs, spines and bugs before using. Gorse flowers do not store well so use them as soon as you get home.
Cooking: Gorse flowers are high in protein and can eaten raw in salads, made into fruit tea, cordial or syrup. It adds extra flavour and colour to beer, wine or spirits, and a whole range of sweet delights like chocolate and ice cream. The buds can be pickled in vinegar and eaten like capers.
Medicinal uses: Gorse had surprisingly few medicinal uses, though its flowers have been used in the treatment of jaundice, scarlet fever, diarrhoea and kidney stones.
Other uses: The seeds can be soaked and used as a flea repellent.
Gorse bushes are highly flammable, and in many areas bundles of gorse were used to fire traditional bread ovens.
Gorse wood has been used to make small objects; being non-toxic, it is especially suited for cutlery. In spite of its durability it is not used for construction because the plant is too small and the wood is unstable, being prone to warping. Gorse is useful for garden ornaments because it is resistant to weather and rot.
Gorse bark produces a dark-green dye and flowers produce a yellow and green dye which can be used to colour fabric.
Know hazards: The scary spiky spines that like to inflict as much pain as possible on anyone trying steal their blossoms. Arm yourself with thick gloves and harvest slowly and carefully.
Don’t overeat! The plant contains slightly toxic alkaloids.
Responsible foraging: Unless you are 100% sure of what it is and 100% sure that it is edible, DON’T EAT IT! Harvest only what you need from large, healthy shrubs. Consider pesticides, herbicides, pollutions and dog pee. Think about all that could, might and will have drifted onto your plants and pick wisely.