Answer: Common gorse, whin, Irish furze, Irish hedge or Ulex europaeus.
Gorse is on the New invaders in the North Coast Cooperative Weed Management Area list which means it’s coming here, and is trying to establish itself along the coast in southern Washington as well. It’s widespread in the southern Oregon coastal counties, up to Lincoln County. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) designates gorse as a class B (“a weed of economic importance which is regionally abundant, but which may have limited distribution in some counties”) and T (“a priority noxious weed designated by the Oregon State Weed Board as a target for which the ODA will develop and implement a statewide management plan”) noxious weed. Part of the statewide plan for gorse involves the development of biocontrol agents similar to those for Scotch broom (see the June 2011 Weed Wars column).
Oregon State Parks runs a blog called Oregon Coast Gorse Control and Eradication (http://oregongorse.wordpress.com/), where the current top post is a video showing a hummingbird nest in gorse! The blog also contains a post about a recent workshop on gorse, which included a field visit to two gorse restoration sites: Bandon Dunes McKee Preserve (a golf course by the beach!) and Bullards Beach State Park. Mark Tilton, a Florence resident who attended the workshop, said that the Bandon Dunes course used to be a gorse thicket. He was surprised that the course builders were able to remove the gorse successfully. Evidently, they used herbicides, burning, bulldozing, and lots of money to accomplish the task.
So what’s so bad about this plant that the state is devoting huge resources to try to control it? I asked that question to Phillip Johnson, executive director of Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition and director of their CoastWatch program.
His respone: “I can say with everyone else who has ever encountered it that it completely excludes you from anyplace it grows. It is deeply saddening to see it choking stream valleys on the south coast, blocking hillsides, turning trails into ugly mown strips lest they be lost entirely. I have particularly hated to see how the trail out to Blacklock Point in Curry County, one of the most beautiful spots on the Oregon coast, has turned from a sylvan path through a native forest to a tunnel through gorse. CoastWatch plans to develop a gorse-tracking project to trace its spread and perhaps provide alerts that enable the line to be held before it spreads into new areas.”
He continued, “Once it gets established, trying to remove it is an industrial activity. Removing it requires a scorched-earth approach, bulldozing, burning, then covering the area for a long time to kill off sprouts.” Johnson indicated that herbicides were not particularly effective against gorse, but they are used.
And then he got to the crux of the matter. “From an anthropocentric standpoint, it excludes us from the landscape where it grows, once it really takes hold. It is viciously spiny – worse to try to push your way through than blackberries or roses. And it grows very densely. Once it occupies a place, we lose our ability to roam the landscape. And, oh yes, it is highly flammable. The city of Bandon was burned more or less to the ground in the ‘30s due to gorse-fueled fire. One of these days it is going to go up in flames again.”
So, where is gorse from, and how did it get here? Well, the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon History Project (http://ohs.org/education/oregonhistory/) has the answer. Its page on the 1936 Bandon fire tells us that George Bennett, founder of Bandon, brought some Irish furze with him as an ornamental shrub, which soon became a common sight in the new town. On September 26, 1936, a forest fire was driven by a sudden shift in the wind towards Bandon. Ignited by the fire, the town’s abundant gorse exploded into an inferno. The town was destroyed, and ten people lost their lives.
There are some references to people trying to use gorse oil to make biodiesel fuel, but it hasn’t been very successful. The major uses of the plant seem to be as living fencing and livestock fodder. Unfortunately, there is no write-up in Scott’s Invasive Plant Medicine on gorse. It’s evidently used as an anti-depressive and anti-stress medicine for humans and horses in various essential oil lotions.
I’ll leave you with this thought: What’s so bad about a plant that excludes humans from the area it grows in? I can think of some places that gorse would be very useful…