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GORSE: Slash, burn, grub,
poison or drink it

Two small communities on opposite sides of the globe have hit on a novel way to dispose of one of the world's worst weeds, the prickly shrub called gorse - they turn its fragrant yellow flowers into wine.

Gorse, originally found only in the United Kingdom and Mediterranean regions, now covers vast areas in southern Australia and New Zealand, the United States (Northern California and Oregon), Canada (British Columbia), Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Chile.

"Gorse is a fact of life in Caspar [California], and we celebrate life," says Michael Potts, in an amusing story on the town's website. "Caspar's annual Gorse Festival ... begins in late winter (when the gorse begins to bloom and softened earth makes grubbing it out possible) and culminates with the Halloween Festival in October, when we taste the first of the year's Gorse Wine.

"At this time of year, many visitors ask, 'What are all those pretty yellow flowers?' And veteran Casparados take a deep breath and start their lament about our most famous invasive exotic, Gorse (Ulex europaeus).

"On a nice warm summer day, gorse shoots its seeds 30 feet from the plant; these robust little bombs can lie dormant for an average of 30 years, until a heedless gardener disturbs the soil, and the whole horrible cycle begins again.

"On a warm, dry autumn day, a well established stand of gorse -- roots and stems are 30% combustible oil -- can burn like an inferno."

The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat published an interesting article by staff writer Andrew LaMar, which said "Gorse may sound like a harmless word Dr. Seuss invented, but the inhabitants of the tiny coastal community of Caspar know better.

"The mere mention of gorse -- the name given a bush-like weed native to Scotland and Ireland -- inspires fear and black humor in this unincorporated area just south of Fort Bragg. The tall, spiny plant has overtaken miles of the Caspar area and the Jug Handle State Reserve park, which runs beside it.

"Fire, bulldozers, herbicides -- everything man has flung at gorse has failed to stop the stubborn plant. Even so, locals continue their unending quest to eradicate it, maintaining a wry sense of humor and acknowledging that, if nothing else, it has helped unify a diverse town."

LaMar said Potts helped organize the first annual Caspar Gorse Festival in 1998, a weekend celebration of art, music and dance. While admitting "we are pretty goony'' about gorse, Potts said the residents of Caspar have a lot in common with their nemesis -- they are thorny, stubborn and resilient.

"Stories differ on how gorse came to Northern California and Oregon just over a century ago, but there is no doubt somebody brought it from Scotland or Ireland, where it is held in check by poor soil and harsh weather," wrote LaMar. "Like many others who came to the New World, gorse flourished."

The Caspar website displays a recipe for gorse wine, from attorney James Jackson. The wine has a fruity taste, according to those who have dared to drink it. "Here is an idea that could be the end of gorse," Potts said, tongue in cheek. "If this turns out to be tasty or good for you or trendy, we have it made. Kiss gorse goodbye!''

Here's a brief web survey of gorse as a noxious plant in other countries:

Australia, Earlier this year, Cath Ireland, a National Parks and Wildlife Service ranger, was awarded the Order of Australia medal for getting the community involved in the annual Great Grose Gorse Walk she established in 1994 to control the vicious weed that was entrenched in the Grose Valley and threatening its famous Blue Gum Forest, Daniel Lewis reported in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Hundreds of people have volunteered thousands of hours to eradicate gorse from the rugged region, in the Blue Mountains World Heritage wilderness.

New Zealand. A 32-year-old woman riding a mountain bike made a wrong turn and was trapped in gorse on the cliffs of red rocks near Owhiro Bay in Wellington last month. Two people heard her cries for help, and rescued her. She was reported to be uninjured, but embarrassed.

The Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture's website says:

GORSE: New Zealand's worst weed, originally introduced as a hedging plant and ornamental, and now established on thousands of hectares of hill and less intensively farmed country.

Despite the expenditure of millions of dollars on herbicides, discing, slashing and burning, this weed is still a huge and expensive problem...

Several insect species have been introduced in attempts at biological control. The gorse seed weevil (Apion ulicis) has become established in most parts of NZ, and reduces seed production considerably, but much seed survives. The gorse spider mite (Tetranychus lintearius) established well in some areas, but predatory insects reduce its effectiveness in some places.

In Hawaii, federal officials endorsed a plan to employ a fungus to eat away at gorse, which has overtaken 35,000 acres.

In Norfolk, England, Owen Underwood drives an armoured tractor through a conservation area at West Tofts, near Thetford, which soldiers have used as a firing range for 60 years. It possibly contains unexploded shells.

His job is to hack back gorse which is over-running the place. "I love destroying gorse," he says. "It's horrible stuff. The thought of paratroopers landing in that - well, it would be like landing in the middle of ten wild cats."

And in the tiny, wind-swept Orkney Islands, off the coast of Scotland, enterprising Dutch settlers Emile and Marjolein van Schayk have formed the Orkney Wine Company, "UK's most northerly winery." They produce Gorse Wine, "made from gorse flowers, picked last year by the capable fingers of members of the Kirkwall City Pipeband, full of Orkney sunshine! Floral aroma, rich palate with a citric buzz."

You can't help wondering how members of that pipe band would play if, in addition to being full of sunshine, they were full of gorse wine.

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Story first posted May 2004

Copyright 2004

Eric Shackle

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