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Gorse along the coast makes blackberries look tame

“Love you not, then to list and hear

The crackling of the gorse-flower near,

Pouring an orange-scented tide

Of fragrance o’er the desert wide?”

— William Howitt, “A Summer Noon,” 1831

On a recent summer day around noon, Jerry and I stood before a dense, 10-foot-tall thicket of gorse that blocked our way to the spot where we are planning to build our retirement home about 5 miles south of Bandon.

Cheery yellow flowers lingering on the evergreen shrubs that look more like trees presented a stark contrast to the mean-looking thorns that seemed to reach out and grab us as we trespassed on territory the gorse had jealously claimed decades ago. We could hear the waves crashing on China Creek Beach a couple of miles away, and the call of the Coquille River Lighthouse at the end of Bandon’s south jetty, but the sound of the gigantic gorse was not nearly as inviting.

Just as William Howitt described in his poem, “A Summer Noon,” the gorse made a continuous crackling noise as the seedpods burst open and released their progeny into the afternoon breeze. No William, love I not “the crackling of the gorse-flower near,” knowing as I do these formidable plants produce about 8,000 seeds a year and are one of the top 100 worst invasive species worldwide.

Gorse (Ulex europaeus) makes the Rogue Valley’s thorny Himalayan blackberry shrubs look tame.

In fact, gorse, also called furze, shares several similarities to the aggressive Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus). They are both rated as Class B noxious weeds in Oregon, which means they are too widespread to be eradicated. They both overwhelm riparian vegetation, destroying habitat for native plants and animals and threatening biodiversity. They also build up layers of plant debris over time that fuel wildfires.

Interestingly, gorse and Himalayan blackberries are both native to Western Europe and were introduced to Oregon intentionally in the late 1800s. The blackberry bushes were brought to the U.S. for their delicious fruit and, although gorse flowers are edible, the plant was introduced as an ornamental hedge.

Lord George Bennett arrived in Bandon (then called Averille) from Ireland in 1873. Not only did Bennett rename the town after his hometown in County Cork, he also brought his favorite flowering shrub, which had served ideally as pasture fencing and fodder for his sheep. Gorse quickly spread throughout Bandon; on Sept. 26, 1936, a gorse thicket caught fire and the uncontrollable flames destroyed all but a few buildings in the town.

Trying to douse a gorse fire with water is like throwing water on a grease fire. In fact, gorse actually encourages fire by secreting oils from its leaves that burn like diesel fuel. Fire allows the seedpods to crack open and sprout, which is why gorse is often the first green plant that emerges from a burn site. The seeds can lay dormant for up to 40 years before germinating.

Today, gorse covers 28,000 acres in Oregon, most of it along the Southern Oregon coast. The Oregon Department of Agriculture has literally drawn a line in the sand at Florence — infestations of gorse north of the line are managed by the ODA, and property owners have to cope with the gorse south of the boundary.

The Gorse Action Group was formed last year to help Curry and Coos county residents control gorse. The group consists of more than 30 federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations, businesses and landowners in a collaborative effort to share effective methods for removing gorse. Demonstration plots are located on Highway 101 just south of the city of Bandon.

Recommended strategies for gorse removal vary depending on land reclamation goals. Methods include several combinations of mowing, tilling, excavating, grinding into mulch, controlled burning, using landscaping fabric and herbicides, and seeding competitive plants. Introducing natural enemies of gorse as a biological control has also been trialed; so far, introducing spider mites has not been effective, but seed weevils and thrips may provide more promising results.

The people of Bandon are a resilient and creative bunch. They rebuilt the town after the devastating 1936 gorse fire, and last year they established an annual Gorse Blossom Festival to bring folks together to learn more about gorse and its impact on the town.

Jerry and I plan to attend the festival next February when the brightly flowering gorse is most visible along the Bandon roadways and on our retirement property. Maybe we’ll even get a few sheep.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.