Let’s keep the Heath in Hampstead by cherishing its yellow gorse

bees and flowers

bees and flowers - Credit: Archant

One of the prettiest and most striking plants that can be found on the Heath during April is Common Gorse (Latin name Ulex europaeus).

With an abundance of bright golden coconut scented flowers this gregarious shrub can be found at various locations across the Heath.

The flowering of this plant is so prolonged (from January to June), prolific and spectacular - that Oscar Wilde in his letter, ‘De Profundis’ tells a tale of the Swedish naturalist and father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus falling to his knees on Putney Heath. He wept for joy when he saw for the first time “the long heath of some English upland made yellow with the tawny aromatic blossoms of the English furze”.

Furze and Whin are common alternative names for this plant with many more delightful localised names such as honey bottle in Somerset,vuzz in Devon and ruffet and frey to name a few.

Gorse is a plant commonly found growing on the higher elevations of the Heath where the nutrient poor, sandy free draining soils can be found.

It can tolerate these conditions well, as being a member of the pea (or Leguminosae) family its roots possess nodules containing rhizobium bacteria which give the plant the ability to fix nitrogen directly from the air. A nutrient that can be lacking on these free draining, easily leached sandy soils.

We have two species of

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gorse on the Heath. Common gorse which can attain a good four metres in height and is by far the most regularly found species. And the much rarer species, dwarf gorse (Ulex Minor). It is a much more delicate looking plant with thinner spines, reaching only one metre in height and localised to the south east of England.

The profusion of yellow flowers, which reflect ultra violet light is highly attractive to its main pollinator group which are heavy insects, namely bumble and honey bees.

It is easy to observe which flowers have been attended to by a bee as the insect forcibly opens the flower to get to the sweet nectar.

This action causes the pollen laden stamens to spring forward, dusting the bee with pollen and once opened the petals hang limply down indicating to other bees that this particular flower is probably not worth a visit.

Later in the year one can also be pleasantly surprised by the unusual popping and cracking sounds made as the seeds dry in their pea like pods as the sun warms them.

This plant has had a long association with this Heath. In fact the Heath probably wouldn’t be called the

Heath without it, as it is an integral component of a heathland’s flora.

The evergreen nature and ridged structure of the branches also provide fantastic foundations for spiders to weave there webs across.

An early morning walk through the gorse, when the sun is low can reveal this to spectacular effect, as moisture settles on the webs it can highlight masses of gossamer cloaking the bushes. These spiny protective branches also provide an ideal nesting habitat for birds like long tailed tits and the rare Dartford warbler.

We cherish these historic plants on the Heath and have an active program of management which includes the Heath hands volunteers propagating plants using local seed and coppicing over mature bushes. Ensuring we retain this as a historic landscape feature and keep the “Heath” in Hampstead