Growing to 2–3 metres (7–10 ft) tall, it is an evergreen shrub. The young stems are green, with the shoots and leaves modified into green spines, 1–3 centimetres (0.39–1.18 in) long. Young seedlings produce normal leaves for the first few months; these are trifoliate, resembling a small clover leaf.
The solitary flowers are yellow, 1–2 centimetres (0.39–0.79 in) long, with the pea-flower structure typical of the Fabaceae; they are produced throughout the year, but mainly over a long period in spring. They are coconut-scented. The fruit is a legume (pod) 2 centimetres (0.79 in) long, dark purplish-brown, partly enclosed by the pale brown remnants of the flower; the pod contains 2–3 small blackish, shiny, hard seeds, which are ejected when the pod splits open in hot weather. Seeds remain viable for 30 years.
Like many species of gorse, it is often a fire-climax plant, which readily catches fire but re-grows from the roots after the fire; the seeds are also adapted to germinate after slight scorching by fire. It has a tap root, lateral and adventious roots. An extremely tough and hardy plant, it survives temperatures down to −20 °C (−4 °F). It can live for about thirty years.
The species has been introduced to other areas of Europe, and also to the Americas, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia, where it is often considered a weed and is a serious problem invasive species in some areas (notably the western United States, Chile and New Zealand). It was introduced to New Zealand from Scotland as a type of hedge, but became a major blight to farmers as the climate suited its growth better than its native habitat and many of its natural predators were absent.
This plant is used for hedging, boundary definition and groundcover in suitably sunny, open locations. Cultivars include 'Strictus' (Irish gorse), a dwarf form, and the double-flowered, non-fruiting 'Flore Pleno', which has gained the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.
Bruised gorse was used in some areas for feeding to horses and other livestock.
Lectin extracted from seeds of this species binds to, is remarkably specific for, and is the standard method for identification of H-substance (absent in the hh antigen system) on human red blood cells. The vast majority of humans express H-substance, which is the basis for the ABO blood group system, but a few rare individuals ("Bombay phenotype") do not—and a chemical isolated from Ulex europaeus is used to identify these individuals. This lectin is also used as a marker for human vascular endothelial cells, and as a tool for their isolation for in-vitro culture.
It fixes nitrogen into the soil.
- "Ulex europaeus L.". Kew Science: Plants of the World Online. Retrieved 2 January 2019.
- Brickell, Christopher, ed. (2008). The Royal Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants. United Kingdom: Dorling Kindersley. p. 1062. ISBN 9781405332965.
- "RHS Plantfinder - Ulex europaeus". Retrieved 1 January 2019.
- "Weeds of National Significance (WONS)". www.environment.gov.au. Commonwealth of Australia – Department of the Environment and Energy. Retrieved 30 November 2016.
- "European gorse | Ulex europaeus – Invasives Species South Africa". 2014-08-19.
- Lalith Gunasekera, Invasive Plants: A guide to the identification of the most invasive plants of Sri Lanka, Colombo 2009, p. 88–89.
- "RHS Plant Selector – Ulex europaeus 'Flore Pleno'". Retrieved 7 June 2013.
- "AGM Plants - Ornamental" (PDF). Royal Horticultural Society. July 2017. p. 103. Retrieved 1 January 2019.
- Aiton, William (1811). General View of The Agriculture of the County of Ayr; observations on the means of its improvement; drawn up for the consideration of the Board of Agriculture, and Internal Improvements, with Beautiful Engravings. Glasgow. p. 441
- Holthöfer, H.; Virtanen, I.; Kariniemi, A. L.; Hormia, M.; Linder, E.; Miettinen, A. (July 1982). "Ulex europaeus I lectin as a marker for vascular endothelium in human tissues". Laboratory Investigation; A Journal of Technical Methods and Pathology. 47 (1): 60–66. ISSN 0023-6837. PMID 6177923.
- Catravas, John D.; Snead, Connie; Dimitropoulou, Christiana; Chang, Albert S.Y.; Lucas, Rudolf; Verin, Alexander D.; Black, Stephen M. (2010). "Harvesting, identification and barrier function of human lung microvascular endothelial cells". Vascular Pharmacology. 52 (5–6): 175–181. doi:10.1016/j.vph.2009.12.009. PMC 4374552. PMID 20060932.