There is much confusion among people about what is Broom and what is Gorse and which one is edible. They are closely related, but where foraging is concerned it is quite important to make the distinction between the two as the buds and flowers of both Broom and Gorse have traditionally been used in salads. There are now concerns about the toxicity of Broom and whether the flowers and buds should be consumed. The toxicity of Gorse is much less, although it is not recommended to eat too many buds or flowers.
Broom is the general name given to evergreen, semi-evergreen and deciduous shrubs in the Pea family. They are divided into 3 genera – Chamaecystisus, Cytisus and Genista. These three are closely related and share similar characteristics – slender, dense stems with very small leaves to suit dry conditions. In addition, Broom is closely related to Gorse and Laburnum. They tolerate and often thrive on poor soils, they do not like wet soils.
Cytisus are shrubs without spines. Leaves with one or three leaflets, alternate. Most have yellow flowers but some have white/orange/red/pink or purple flowers.
Genistaare spiny or non-spiny shrubs with simple leaves. Flowers are yellow, borne in heads or racemes. All the above are native to Europe, North Africa and southwest Asia, but the largest diversity is in the Mediterranean. Flowering at the moment is the largest shrub in the family ‘Spanish Broom’ (Spartium junceum or Genista junceum), even more toxic than the Cytisus genus.
The Plantagenet kings used common Broom ‘Planta genista‘ as an emblem and took their family name from it. It was initially the emblem of Geoffrey of Anjou, father of Henry II of England.
Genista tinctoria (Dyer’s Broom) was grown commercially for its yellow dye in parts of Britain into the early 19th century. Woolen cloth, mordanted with alum (colour fixative) was dyed yellow with Dyer’s Broom, then dipped into a vat of blue dye (Woad or later Indigo) to produce a once famous colour ‘Kendal Green’, later superseded by ‘Saxon Green’ in the 1770’s.
Broom contains alkaloids, notably ‘sparteine’ which affects the heart and nerves, similar to curare. It is a bitter, narcotic herb that depresses respiration, regulates the heart action and has diuretic and purgative effects; medicinally, used internally for heart complaints. Excess causes respiratory collapse. Not to be given to pregnant women and people with high blood pressure. Only to be used under qualified practitioner.
Gorse – Ajonc
Ulex europaeus or common Gorse/Furze looks similar to Broom but with spiny branches. It flowers in late winter and spring through to September. It prefers slightly acid, poor soils.
In former times, in winter, when there was no other green food available, gorse was used to feed cattle. The shrub would be crushed before given to cattle.
Gorse wood was used to make small objects. As the wood is non toxic, it has been used for cutlery as well as garden ornaments as it is resistant to weather and rot. Ash, from Gorse wood, is rich in potassium and makes a good fertiliser.
Soaked seeds are a good remedy against fleas.
In the Bach flower remedies, the flowers stand for hopelessness and despair.
Gorse flowers are edible. They can be used in salads and tea. They have a slight coconut aroma and almond taste. The buds can be pickled like capers and the shoot tips used for tea.
Gorse flower and Dandelion salad
Ingredients: 4 handfuls of dandelion leaves; 1/2 thinly sliced cucumber; 2 handful of Gorse flowers.
Mix the leaves, flowers and cucumber together. Add your favourite dressing. Ideal for early spring when the dandelion leaves and gorse flowers are available.