Yellow gorse, furze, broom, whinn, call it what you will, it’s blooming marvellous at the moment, and its glad golden glow is currently brightening the hills and hedgerows of Ireland as Bealtaine nears, like a halo over the landscape. Naturally, this prolific plant features prominently in Irish mythology and Ireland’s ancient lore.
Its official name is Ulex Europaeus. In Ireland, it is called aiteann, which, according to an ancient manuscript known as Cormac’s Glossary, comes from aith meaning ‘sharp’, and tenn, meaning ‘lacerating’. This is due to its prickly nature, and fierce thorns.
In fact, this was one of the reasons why farmers and shepherds used it in hedging their fields; it kept livestock in, and intruders out. It was believed to extend protective powers over the herds, and act as a good flea-repellent. Ground up, it made excellent animal fodder.
As it is fast-growing, and rather invasive, farmers would burn back the old growth. This would have two benefits; not only would the ashes provide good nutrition for the soil, but it would encourage the growth of tender new shoots, which were highly prized as a food for their cattle and sheep.
However, the reason why I love yellow gorse so much, is the amazing scent, which becomes even more heady and powerful in full sunlight. Imagine the scent of coconut combined with marzipan… I just adore it! Apparently, its blossoms are edible, and actually taste like almonds!
In Ireland, the flowers have long been used to colour and flavour whisky, and also to make wine. Here is a recipe, if you feel so inclined. (How to make Yellow Gorse Wine) I’ll be happy to come on over and taste test it for you.
Yellow Gorse blooms for at least nine months of the year, hence the lovely old Irish saying;
“When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season.”
I saw it blooming happily on New Years Day this year up at Loughnleagh. According to tradition, it is associated with love and fertility, probably because it is so prolific, and a small sprig would be added to bridal bouquets. The bride would have to cut it herself, however, as it was considered unlucky to give or receive as a gift.
This is no doubt due to the fact that all thorny bushes and trees, including the hawthorn, blackthorn and blackberry, were considered to belong to the Sidhe, or fairy folk, and thus be under their protection. These trees where thought to guard entrances to the Otherworld, and so were thought of as sacred or cursed, depending on one’s beliefs.
Having said that, as one of the nine sacred woods, branches of gorse would be gathered and burned on the ceremonial fires of Bealtaine. Gorse wood has a high oil content, which means it burns at a similar temperature as charcoal, and it would often be used to start the bonfires.
In the Ogham alphabet, yellow gorse is represented by Onn, the 17th character. According to the Lebor Ogaim, the ‘Book of Oghams’ also known as the Ogham Tract, plants were categorised by rank. Gorse was ranked highly as a ‘chieftain’ tree, as was furze, whereas broom was listed as the lowest rank of ‘bramble’. Quite how this was decided is beyond me, never mind that I thought all these names were for one and the same plant.
In ancient times, gorse had many uses other than guarding the homes of the Sidhe, lighting the Bealtaine fires, and penning livestock.
A yellow dye in a shade now generally thought of as saffron was made from its blossoms. Dying cloth was considered something of a magical process in early Ireland, carried out only by women; no men were allowed to be present. I’m sure that went down well with the arrival of the Christian church.
As well as being used in whisky and wine, gorse was also consumed for medicinal purposes. An infusion of the flowers would be given to children as a cure for scarlet fever, and the seeds were considered beneficial for a ‘laxness of the bowels’… nice! It was mixed with honey and used as a mouthwash, and strewn about the floor of a dwelling was thought to repel fleas.
Its ashes, which were high in alkali, were spread on the earth as a fertiliser, or mixed with fat to make soap. Burning torches of gorse wood around cattle and other livestock was thought to prevent infertility, and keep their coats clear of parasites. Gorse wood was also used for making hurleys and walking sticks.
As we have seen, yellow gorse was always associated with the festival of Bealtaine. With the advance of Christianity, this celebration was replaced with May Day. The deep golden colour of the blooms perhaps still represented the flames of the fires in the minds of the people, and perhaps symbolised the growing strength of the sun.
Homes would be decorated with boughs of yellow gorse, and in some parts of Ireland, instead of using hawthorn, gorse would be decorated with shells and flowers as the Maybush. Of course to the Christians, the pagans were seen as witches, their deities and customs interpreted as devil worship.
The pagan association with yellow gorse meant that it was believed to harbour witches within its spiky domain. On May day, the gorse would be set alight in the hope of flushing out any witches hiding there. It was believed that they would transform themselves into the shape of hares and thus evade the flames by leaping swiftly for safety. Any hares found would be killed, poor things.
Yellow gorse is clearly a feature of the Irish landscape which is inextricably tied up in Ireland’s history and mythology; a plant of contrasts, good and bad, healing and wounding, at once protecting, nurturing and dominating.