Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Kissing’s in fashion ….

The saying ‘When kissing’s out of fashion, gorse is out of bloom’ and variations thereof is well known and frequently given in popular books on plant folklore.  For example, Margaret Baker’s Discovering the Folklore of Plants, ed. 3: 64, 1996, where she, like others before and after, explains ‘gorse may be found in bloom every month of the year‘.  However, observations over many years suggest that common gorse (Ulex europaeus) is not, in fact, in bloom for much of the year.  These observations are supported by Clive Stace in his New Flora of the British Isles, ed. 3, 2010, where on pp 184-5, he states that gorse is ‘mainly winter/spring’ flowering, although the much less widespread species, western gorse (U. gallii) and dwarf gorse (U. minor) are described as ‘flowering mainly summer’.  Thus it appears that the implication that that kissing is never out of fashion is incorrect.

006John B. Smith  has noted that current versions of the rhyme are derived from one recorded in c.1225:  ‘When blows the broom, then woos the groom/ When blows the furze [gorse] then woos he worse.’  However, broom (Cytisus scoparius), like gorse, does not flower throughout the year, blooming mainly in May and June, though both species produce odd flowers at other times.  Smith suggests that in parts of Europe broom was considered to be a ‘great aphrodisiac’.  In Germany, prolific flowering of broom in central Franconia, the prolific flowering of broom presaged many pregnancies, and in the Nahe valley, many births.

It appears that the use of broom as an aphrodisiac is unknown in the British Isles, although Richard Mabey in his Flora Britannica: 229, 1996 claims, without explanation, that broom is a plant of ‘amorousness’.  It is, however, perhaps worth mentioning broomstick marriages, such as briefly mentioned by Donald Watts in his Dictionary of Plant Lore: 48, 2007.  These involved jumping over a broomstick, presumably on some occasions at least made from branches of broom.  A Cheviot term for irregular marriages was ‘jumping the broom stick’, and in Somerset ‘you should never step over a broom if you are unmarried, for if you do you will bear a bastard child’.

Images: main, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, November 2015; inset, flowerless fruiting plant, Rushton, Northamptonshire, August 2015.

Updated 15 July 2015.