When recently thinking about the wonderful world of Irish plants ahead of St Patrick's Day, I realised I took for granted so many unique plants that I grew up around in rural North-western Ireland. So, I went on the type of nostalgic journey we Irish are often known to take.
I remembered long summer evenings on the mountain near my grandparent’s farm eating bilberries. I fondly recall my fathers joy at discovering the perfect walking stick in an old blackthorn tree. An enthusiasm not shared by my mother, who felt the current blackthorn stick collection at home was quite large enough. A highlight one summer was a visit to the village of Ballintoy, the birthplace of my mother, on the North Antrim coast, where she showed me how to harvest and dry dulse.
I recall the first time my father made nettle soup, and my concern about the nettles stinging my mouth. The nettles didn’t sting, and the soup was delicious—these experiences inspired in me a love of nature and plants, which has served me well as the Curator Manager of the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.
The Irish flora contains 3,815 species relatively small compared with the 24,000 species native to Australia. The habitats include grasslands with lowland meadows and woodlands. Ireland currently has almost 200,000 hectares of bogs and fens.
These precious ecosystems are rich in heather, ferns, orchids, sundews and sedges. Bogs provide habitat for many Irish native animals such as the Irish hare, frogs, the Smooth Newt, Snipe, Skylarks, and the endangered Irish curlew. The Burren in County Clare, which at first can be mistaken for a barren landscape dominated by bare rock, contains over 70% of Ireland's native species, including 22 of Ireland's 27 native orchid species.
Below is an eclectic mix of some of my favourite Irish native plants.
Dulse or duileasc - Palmaria palmata
Palmaria palmata, commonly known as dulse or duileasc in Irish, is a seaweed harvested by coastal communities for at least 1500 years. Highly regarded for its medicinal and nutritional value, dulse is a valuable food source. Between 1845 and 1852, Phytophthora infestans or Potato blight resulted in successive potato crop failure, leading to a famine in Ireland.
The famine resulted in 1 million people dying of starvation and disease and 1.2 million emigration to many countries including Australia. Dulse became a vital food source during the famine, and people flocked to the coast to harvest this nutritious crop. Today dulse has seen a revival with top chefs including it in the menus of high-end restaurants. If visiting the north of Ireland in late August, dulse can be enjoyed at the Auld Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, running for nearly 400 years.
Briúlán - Rosa spinosissima
Rosa spinosissima, known in Irish as Briúlán, is native to Ireland and Europe, usually found growing on coastal dunes, cliffs and grassland. This is a small prickly shrub that has delicate single white, cream or pink flowers.
The flowers appear throughout the summer and are followed by attractive purple-black fruit known as hips. Rose hips are a rich source of vitamin C, with up to 10 times more than oranges. The hips are used to make a rosehip syrup which is made by boiling the rose hips in the water and adding sugar. They are also an important food source for birds in Ireland. Due to its thick prickly growth habit, Rosa spinosissima also provides an important habitat for small birds.
Blackthorn or Draighean - Prunus spinosa
Another Rosaceae family member with great importance in Irish folklore is Prunus spinosa, commonly called blackthorn or Draighean in Irish. These small spiky trees are said to be guarded by the moon fairy Lunantisidhe, not the friendliest of fairies. The wood of the blackthorn is traditionally used to make shillelaghs, a club used as a weapon.
The Boston Celtics basketball team’s logo shows a leprechaun leaning on a shillelagh. Shillelaghs are now sold throughout Ireland and are popular mementos for tourists. The blackthorn is also used to make walking sticks a tradition still alive in rural Ireland. The fruit known as sloes are harvested in Autumn and used to make jams, wines and the liqueur known as sloe gin.
Nettle or Neantóg - Urtica dioica
Urtica dioica, the common nettle or Neantóg in Irish, is perhaps a strange inclusion of my favourite Irish plants. Infamous for their unpleasant sting, everyone who has grown up in Ireland has childhood memories of vigorously rubbing dock leaves to the skin to soothe a nasty nettle sting.
Nettles are a rich source of vitamin C and contain more iron than spinach. Their most common use in Ireland is to make nettle soup in the Spring. If a healthy chemical and pollution-free population of nettles can be found, the upper leaves are harvested and used to make this healthy and tasty meal. I've included one of my favourite recipes for nettles below.
Irish Nettle Soup recipe from Darina Allen’s Irish Traditional Cooking (Serves 6)
150g young nettles washed and chopped
275g potatoes, peeled and chopped
100g brown onion, chopped
100g leeks, white and light green parts only, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 litre of chicken stock
150ml full fat milk or cream
Boil some water and pour it over the nettles. Allow them to sit for 30 seconds, then drain, allow to cool slightly and discard any stems.
Roughly chop the leaves and set them aside.
Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot, ideally one with a tight-fitting lid, over a medium heat.
When the butter starts to foam add the chopped potatoes, onions and leeks and toss them until well coated. Season well.
Cover the pot and cook the vegetables over a gentle heat for 10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not coloured.
Add the stock and bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are tender.
Add the chopped nettle leaves and simmer, uncovered, for just a few minutes more.
Be careful not to overcook the soup at this point or the vegetables will discolour and will also lose their flavour. Liquidise the soup, then add the cream or milk and stir it through and reheat.
Billberry or Fraochán - Vaccinium myrtillus
Vaccinium myrtillus, the bilberry or Fraochán in Irish, is a wild blueberry found abundantly growing in Ireland's heathland and mountainous areas. Bilberries are rich in vitamin C and used in cakes, tarts, muffins and crumbles.
Billberry fruit is traditionally gathered on the last Sunday in July, known as "Fraughan Sunday". The size of the crop of bilberries was used as an indication of how good the harvest of other crops would be that year. The history of bilberry use in Ireland goes back a long way with seeds discovered in excavations of Viking Dublin.
Snowdrop or Plúirín sneachta - Galanthus nivalis
Galanthus nivalis, the snowdrop known in Irish as Plúirín sneachta, is often the first flower to appear in January and is a sign that spring is on the way. These tough little flowers are common throughout Ireland, and much loved in Irish gardens.
Snowdrops with their delicate white flowers brighten up the dark winter garden, and Ireland has many snowdrop enthusiasts, also knows as Galanthophiles. Bellefield Gardens in Co Offaly has over 100 varieties of snowdrops, so if you are visiting between 31st January and 16th February, the snowdrops are spectacular.
Lus na gaoith - Anemone nemorosa
It is appropriate to finish this brief journey through my favourite Irish plants with an Irish native that is always flowering for St. Patricks Day. Anemone nemorosa, the wood anemone, produces its delicate white flowers from February through to April.
Known in Irish as Lus na gaoith, this little perennial can be found throughout Ireland. The presence of wood anemones often indicates the site where an ancient woodland once stood. Many cultivars of Anemone nemorosa have been bred for garden use, but it’s important to note that these striking little plants contain poisonous compounds toxic to animals, including humans.
There are so many more wonderful Irish plants that could have been included, but the best way to see them is by visiting Ireland. I recommend the months of May and September as its not the peak tourist season, and the weather is usually fine by Irish standards. I would love to hear what your favourite Irish plants are, feel free to leave a comment.