(Gorse in bloom at Anstruther Golf Club.)
Ask a links golfer whether he or she would rather hit out of a nine-foot-deep revetted bunker or a gorse bush, and that person will likely choose the bunker every time. Gorse, the Freddy Krueger of plants, is literally part of the landscape on golf courses found in mild, maritime climates such as Scotland, the U.S. northwest and Canadian southwest, New Zealand, and even Hawaii.
Why? It’s mainly because gorse—also known as furze, whin, or Irish fence—is extremely difficult to eradicate once established. It’s literally covered with long, sharp thorns (which are actually modified leaves). One plant can grow into a 15-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide impenetrable hedge, given the right conditions—which is to say, the worst conditions. Gorse thrives in poor, dry soil: it has a deep, dense root network, and it can take nitrogen out of the air, so good soil is not prerequisite. That could be one of the reasons that gorse is thought to have originated in the western UK, where sandy, rocky soil is the norm.
Other noxious traits: its peapod-like seedpods burst and fling seeds outward when the pods dry—one bush can produce 8,000 seeds per year—and those seeds remain viable for at least 30 years. Also, gorse crowds out other beneficial vegetation as it grows, while its own center dies out and dries. Combined with the high oil content of the plant, this means the plant presents a major fire hazard if not controlled. In 1936, the town of Bandon, Oregon, almost burned to the ground and 14 citizens died due to extensive infestations of gorse. (Historical records in England also indicate that gorse was harvested to fuel bread ovens, but that the amount one person could gather was regulated by law, indicating the plant had value because of this “virtue”.)
Back in the early days of golf, livestock such as sheep, goats, and cattle helped keep gorse under control. But this was only accomplished after hundreds of years of animals grazing on flowers (which reduces seed production) and on young plants as they emerged (which reduces spread). Once the animal groundskeepers were removed from courses, gorse came back with a vengeance and human groundskeepers had to take over. Today, the best controls are removal by heavy equipment or by fire followed by a herbicide chaser for new shoots.
A recent visit to Scotland revealed gorse on nearly every course we visited. Its flowers are indeed beautiful, and it is just part of the gorgeous backdrop of coastal Scotland, together with bracken fern and heather. The sheep on Brora do seem to keep the plant in check (no doubt humans also play a role). Gorse can also be a handy steering device on a golf course: we noted that on the Musselburgh Old Course, a gorse hazard was being installed at the end of the dog-legged ninth hole to keep power hitters from approaching the green from behind.
So let’s end with a few more words of praise: gorse, because of its prodigious yellow flowers and their sweet coconut-like scent, is definitely a beneficial pollinator plant. It also provides great shelter for insects, birds, and small animals. Keep those pluses in mind while you’re trying to extricate your ball from its deep and thorny clutches.