First bloom of the year

From an email by Jocie to the Botany Group on January 1.

Happy New Year! 

I don’t like to begin the year with a “bad news” story, but I’m obliged to report the first bloom of the year, which belongs to gorse (Ulex europaeus). I’m sure you are all familiar with this formidably spiny invasive species. 

A few days ago, I went for a walk at Woodhus Slough (near the Salmon Point pub, which is in the process of being rebuilt). It was a gloomy grey afternoon with fading daylight, and the gorse stood out defiantly in a blaze of yellow blooms. 

Strangely, the next day I opened Edith Holden’s classic The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. Every now and then I open this book to see what Edith was up to on a particular day. I flipped to an entry with a fine illustration of gorse, and a hand-copied poem “Lessons from the Gorse” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Browning, it seems, admired this spiny, tenacious winter-bloomer. 

Gorse is native to western Europe, and flourishes in open areas with poor soils that are often sandy or rocky. It was introduced as an ornamental to coastal Oregon in the late 19th century, and has since spread along the coast from California to BC. In BC, it is most prevalent on the southern half of Vancouver Island, the southern Gulf Islands and the Vancouver area. Populations have also been found around Skidegate on Haida Gwaii.

Gorse is in the pea family, and the yellow blooms resemble scotch broom, but gorse, unlike the latter, is extremely spiny. The flowers smell sweetly of coconut. Hairy black seedpods produce thousands of seeds that remain viable for up to 40 years. When the pods split open the seeds are shot out a metre or more from the plant. 

When a patch of gorse is removed the battle isn’t over, since the plant can regenerate from root fragments and cut-off stalks. A mature stand can have an accumulation of 100 million seeds in the soil beneath it. Efforts to fully eradicate gorse take continual effort over a period of time. 

Gorse is also known as “furze” from the Anglo-Saxon word for fire. Gorse contains volatile oils which makes it a fire hazard. In Europe, it was sometimes used as firewood. In 1936 the town of Bandon, Oregon burned to the ground causing the death of 14 people. The fire was fueled by large areas of surrounding gorse. 

Gorse is not very widespread in the Comox Valley. There is some along the Comox waterfront, and at Little River Nature Park. I’m hoping that in 2021 we can have some work parties to remove patches of gorse and other invasive plants that threaten native plants and habitat. Let’s do it!

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