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Uses of the golden gorse

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Gorse - Ulex europaeus (Callie Jones)

With its bright yellow flowers and its spiny branches the common gorse, Ulex europaeus, is conspicuous in waste places and on commons and heath throughout Britain.

The golden flowers have a powerful scent. They open from early spring up to autumn, but bushes are to be found in blossom practically the whole year round.

Despite its sturdy appearance, gorse is not hardy, and severe frosts are liable to injure it.

Gorse is thought to be the scorpius of Theophrastus and the ulex of Pliny, who stated that it was used in prospecting for gold, being laid in the water to collect any gold dust washed downstream.

Gorse was once used as a fuel, notably in bakers’ ovens. The ashes made an excellent soil dressing. Another use for the ashes, which are rich in alkali, was as a detergent in washing, either in the form of a solution, or mixed with clay and made into balls, as a substitute for soap.

The leaf buds have been used as a substitute for tea, and the flowers yield a vivid yellow dye. The seeds are mildly astringent, containing tannin, and were used to treat diarrhoea. There are also reports of them being mixed with honey “to cleanse the mouth”.

In 1886 A. W. Gerrard discovered an alkaloid in the seeds, which he named ulexine. It It was later found that ulexine is identical to cytisine, which had earlier been extracted from laburnum, Cytisus laburnum.

Ulexine is one of a group of isoflavonoid alkaloids that are sodium channel blocking antiarrythmic agents. They can relieve cardiac oedema, but they also increase blood pressure. These actions are thought to be the cause of the toxic effects that occur upon accidental ingestion of parts of broom and lupin plants. They are not approved for use in humans as antiarrythmic agents.

More recent research has investigated the antifungal activity of these alkaloids, thought to be a defence mechanism against pathogens. Results suggest that these compounds also have a feeding deterrent effect upon insects, which would again provide the plants with defence against predators.

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