1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Furze

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FURZE, Gorse or Whin; botanical name Ulex (Ger. Stechginster, Fr. ajonc), a genus of thorny papilionaceous shrubs, of few species, confined to west and central Europe and north-west Africa. Common furze, U. europaeus, is found on heaths and commons in western Europe from Denmark to Italy and Greece, and in the Canaries and Azores, and is abundant in nearly all parts of the British Isles. It grows to a height of 2–6 ft.; it has hairy stems, and the smaller branches end each in a spine; the leaves, sometimes lanceolate on the lowermost branches, are mostly represented by spines from 2 to 6 lines long; and branching at their base; and the flowers, about three-quarters of an inch in length, have a shaggy, yellowish-olive calyx, with two small ovate bracts at its base, and appear in early spring and late autumn. They are yellow and sweet-scented and visited by bees. The pods are few-seeded; their crackling as they burst may often be heard in hot weather. This species comprises the varieties vulgaris, or U. europaeus proper, which has spreading branches, and strong many-ridged spines, and strictus (Irish furze), with erect branches, and slender 4-edged spines. The other British species of furze is U. nanus, dwarf furze, a native of Belgium, Spain and the west of France; it is a procumbent plant, less hairy than U. europaeus, with smaller and more orange-coloured flowers, which spring from the primary spines, and have a nearly smooth calyx, with minute basal bracts. Furze, or gorse, is sometimes employed for fences.

Notwithstanding its formidable spines, the young shoots yield a palatable and nutritious winter forage for horses and cattle. To fit it for this purpose it must be chopped and bruised to destroy the spines. This is sometimes done in a primitive and labourious way by laying the gorse on a block of wood and beating it with a mallet, flat at one end and armed with crossed knife-edges at the other, by the alternate use of which it is bruised and chopped. There are now a variety of machines by which this is done rapidly and efficiently, and which are in use where this kind of forage is used to any extent. The agricultural value of this plant has often been used over-rated by theoretical writers. In the case of very poor, dry soils it does, however, yield much valuable food at a season when green forage is not otherwise to be had. It is on this account of importance to dairymen; and to them it has this further recommendation, that cows fed upon it give much rich milk, which is free from any unpleasant flavour. To turn it to good account, it must be sown in drills, kept clean by hoeing, and treated as a regular green crop. If sown in March, on land fitly prepared and afterwards duly cared for, it is ready for use in the autumn of the following year. A succession of cuttings of proper age is obtained for several years from the same field. It is cut by a short stout scythe, and must be brought from the field daily; for when put in a heap after being chopped and bruised it heats rapidly. It is given to horses and cows in combination with chopped hay or straw. An acre will produce about 2000 faggots of green two-year-old gorse, weighing 20 lb. each.

This plant is invaluable in mountain sheep-walks. The rounded form of the furze bushes that are met with in such situations shows how diligently the annual growth, as far as it is accessible, is nibbled by the sheep. The food and shelter afforded to them in snowstorms by clusters of such bushes is of such importance that the wonder is our sheep farmers do not bestow more pains to have it in adequate quantity. Young plants of whin are so kept down by the sheep that they can seldom attain to a profitable size unless protected by a fence for a few years. In various parts of England it is cut for fuel. The ashes contain a large proportion of alkali, and are a good manure, especially for peaty land.