Gorse is a thorny evergreen shrub that thrives on Cornwall’s windswept moors, bathing vast stretches of the Cornish landscape in cheery yellow for much of the year. Also known as furze or whin, gorse plays an important role in area eco-systems, providing dense, protective cover for nesting birds. This abundant, resilient plant has been used traditionally for an array of purposes, from livestock fodder to dye-making and besoms, as a pest repellent for crops and even the ultimate clothes line (once latched on to its sharp, strong thorns, fabrics are not easily blown away from gorse!). Long associated with fire, gorse is propagated through burning, and represents as well a significant wildfire risk. Time ago gorse crofts were a vital source of firewood for Cornish peasants, its high flammability rendering it a valuable fuel.
Come the start-of-summer ritual observances around May Day, gorse appears alongside other May flowers in bundles attached to doorposts to ward off evil, thieves, or ill-wishers, and in Cornwall particularly locals who tie a sprig of gorse to their front door might receive treats from friends and neighbors. To some the national flower of Cornwall and for ages linked to Saint Piran, the 6th-century figure popularly recognized as patron saint of Cornwall (and patron of tinners), gorse represents one of those bridges between symbolic and practical I find so fascinating, connecting folkways, cultural identity, and the natural world through its many uses and associations.
With their not-overly-floral composition and rich flavor reminiscent of coconut and vanilla, gorse flowers are used to intriguing effect in perfumes and wines. On my recent return visit to Cornwall, in fact, I had the chance to taste a homemade cordial made from gorse flowers, thanks to the generosity and creativity of a lovely new friend. Jo Cooper is a highly talented cook, possessing aplomb and expertise I’ve never encountered in one self-taught. After a morning spent picking up Newlyn crab, Cornish cheeses and duck eggs, locally grown asparagus and other supplies, she took me to Cupid Woods near Carbis Bay (today known as Cubit Woods), where she oversees a very worth-your-time project called Heart of the Woods. An expert forager as well, Jo guided me on a walk through that sublimely peaceful patch of land to gather garlic flowers, lime tree leaves, navelwort and more, after which we returned to her deftly built pit fire to enjoy a most memorable meal, born of her imagination:
The work Jo currently does at Heart of the Woods includes organizing and leading volunteer-based outdoor group classes and fun activities to educate children on nature and wildlife. She is, in her own words, ‘eager to connect children with nature and foster an enthusiasm for the woodland environment and its future care.’ (This together with her cooking skills qualifies her as a total bad-ass.) It was a brilliant day, filled with the things that made me fall in love with Cornwall last year—natural beauty, wonderful food, really cool people.
Gathering gorse flowers can be a dangerous undertaking. Some wear gloves, but as Jo noted before I wandered off to pick a few, the best method is simply to pull the flower buds towards you to avoid being pricked by gorse’s small yet ferocious spines. I fared well enough. No bleeding at least.
Here is Jo’s recipe for gorse flower cordial:
½ liter water
100 grams sugar
2 large handfuls gorse flowers
Place the flowers in a large bowl. Bring the sugar and water to a boil. Remove from heat and pour over the flowers. Let steep 24 hours, then filter and bottle. This version will keep for 3 to 4 months. Increasing the amount of sugar to as much as 300 grams will result in a syrup-like cordial that keeps for a year. The cordial makes a nice cocktail, served over ice with tonic water.
Variations of a popular saying in Cornwall and elsewhere in the U.K. reflect the plant’s prolific bloom throughout most of the year: kissing’s out of fashion when the gorse is out of blossom and when the gorse is not in flower, kissing’s out of fashion, among others. Kiss the year long, in other words.
Gorse is commonly called ginestrone in Italian. According to a Sicilian legend, the noise of a burning gorse bush in the garden of Gethsemane attracted the attention of the Roman soldiers who captured Jesus Christ. Thus the plant was cursed to always crackle and hiss when burnt.