Irish Flowers: 16 Wild and Wonderful Examples
Written by: Caitlin
Published: 7th January 2021
What springs to mind first for you when you think of Irish flowers? For most of us, when considering things that grow in the Emerald Isle, I think it’s fair to say that it’s the rolling green fields, the traditional green shamrock or perhaps the four leaf clover that spring to mind first. But the rainbow of colourful native wildflowers are not to be overlooked either.
Despite the at times chilly climate across the country there are a huge variety of beautiful Irish flowers that thrive naturally, and we hope you enjoy our introduction to some of the more common ones, some of which you’ll find on our nature reserve near Ardmore.
Please let us know about any of the wonderful flora and fauna you have spotted on your travels that we could include next in our guide!
National Irish Flowers
The History of the Shamrock
Although arguably not exactly a flower, the shamrock is a small clover which is now the national flower of Ireland. It came to be so as it was once an important symbol to the ancient Irish Druids, as a plant naturally displaying the triad with its three heart-shaped leaves.
The Celts believed that everything important in the world came in threes; from the three dominions of earth, sky and sea, the three ages of man, and the three phases of the moon; so it is only natural that a plant with three leaves would have been held in high regard.
It is believed that St Patrick realised the importance of this small plant to the Druids, and decided to use the shamrock to illustrate the Christian teachings of the Holy Trinity. This was an effective way of spreading the word of Christianity throughout the land, in a way that best appealed to its people.
The shamrock was considered by many to have mystical properties and the ability to predict the weather; its leaves turn skyward when a storm is brewing.
In Celtic lore the shamrock has always been a charm against evil, which relates to the modern belief in the four leaf clover as a good luck charm.
The Shamrock Today
There is still not a definite consensus over which precise botanical species of clover is the “true” shamrock depicted in lore and legend and used as the Irish symbol. Two separate scientific surveys were carried out in Ireland, one in 1893, and one in 1988 to try and get to the bottom of it.
Both surveys involved asking people from all across Ireland to send in examples of shamrock, which were then planted and allowed to flower, so that their botanical species could be identified. The results of both surveys were very similar, showing that the conception of the shamrock in Ireland had changed little in almost a hundred years.
The results show that there is no one “true” species of shamrock, but that Trifolium dubium (lesser clover) is considered to be it by half of Irish people, and Trifolium repens (white clover) by another third, with the rest split between Trifolium pratense (red clover), Medicago lupulina (black medick), Oxalis acetosella (wood sorrel), and various other species.
But whichever one is your true shamrock, they all grow in abundance in Ireland, so the likelihood of spotting your own lucky charm all year round is very high!
Not to mention, it is very easy to grow your own, with many hybrid Shamrocks being grown and sold as house plants in the early spring, in time for St.Patricks Day each year.
Native Irish Flowers
This pretty plant is also known as ‘Andromeda polifolia’ or ‘lus na móinte’, and it belongs to the Ericaceae family. But don’t be fooled by it’s common name, unlike the common herb rosemary, this plant is highly poisonous and not to be eaten!
This shrub loves moisture dense areas and thrives in bogs, mostly in the Irish midlands. It doesn’t grown particularly tall, rarely more than 40cm, and is often hidden from view by the surrounding mosses. But if you do spot it, it’s likely to be between the months of May and June, when the flowers emerge a strong bright pink, before fading to a paler colour as the summer months take over.
This flower owes it’s common name to the tradition of wearing it as a symbol of remembrance for those who have lost their lives for their country, as well as of the resurrection of Christ at Easter time. The Easter lily is a fitting tribute for Irish nationalists as it blooms in the springtime, coinciding with the anniversary of the 1916 Easter rising, when Ireland was declared as an independent republic.
It’s latin name is ‘Lilium longiflorum’, or gardeners may also refer to it as a trumpet lily. It is a perennial bulb with large, white, trumpet-shaped flowers and is known for it’s wonderful fragrance. These gorgeous flowers are stem rooted and can grow an impressive 1 metre high. They thrive in Ireland because they grow best in moist soils and prefer a cool climate.
You can recognise Sheep’s-bit by it’s distinctive fluffy headed blue flowers which extend up above the wavy edged hairy leaves which sit at the base of the short stems. Interestingly, Sheep’s-bit is highly visible under ultraviolet (UV) light, making it attractive to pollinating insects which can see a different spectrum of light to us. It is also a common feature to many gardens, often adorning rockeries.
The flowering Spring Squill is found mainly in coastal areas, as it thrives in areas where the wind carries the sea spray. During it’s relatively short flowering period between April and May, you can recognise this plant from its violet-blueish flowers, as seen above, where they emerge from the coastal grasslands.
The Spring Squill, or to give it it’s latin name, Scilla verna, is the county flower for County Down, after being voted such by a public vote in 2007. The small perennial plant grows from a bulb and usually gets to around 5-15 cm high. Between 2 and 7 long and narrow leaves grow from the base of the tree, and the scentless flowers grow in dense clusters at the top of the stem, with noticeable black seeds that protrude.
This is often considered one of the more beautiful of the native wild Irish flowers, but for a long time it was noticeably absent from the country’s landscape.
Due to the intensive farming and over-picking it was given special protection in Northern Ireland under the Wildlife Order of 1985, and thankfully it appears to be making a comeback. Now you would be most likely to spot it along the Irish roadsides and in grassy pastures.
The distinctive features to look out for when spotting cowslips, otherwise known as Primula veris or bainne bó bleachtáin, include the cluster of small drooping yellow flowers protruding from a stout stem, as seen in the photograph above.
Cowslips are are perennial and they typically bloom in the springtime, so the best time to keep an eye out for these rare beauties in between April and May.
You might recognise the Trifolium pratense or seamair dhearg, or as it’s more commonly known, the Red Clover, as it has made it onto our Irish flowers list for being one of the most common varieties of clover in Ireland. It belongs to the Fabaceae family of plants and is typically found in meadows, or along roadsides, and on cultivated land, because it thrives in in moist but well-drained soils.
The red clover is recognisable by it’s number of dense heads of small pinkish purple flowers, that are normally in bloom from May to October. As well as being a naturally occurring wildflower, the red clover is also an important agricultural cultivator and is widely grown for silage production.
Whether you refer to this one by it’s most common name of gorse, or have grown up knowing it as furze or whin, or even if you use the scientific term of Ulex europaeus or the Irish version of Aiteann gallda, we are sure you will have spotted this native shrub around the Irish landscape. They mainly grow in hedgerows and line the country roads.
Throughout the year the yellow peaflowers can be spotted, but generally grow most in abundance between February and May. These Irish flowers will usually grown to between 15-20mm and are known for having a wonderful coconut-ty aroma. The stems are spiny and the leafs are thorny, evolved as such after years of withstanding the harsh winters of the high altitude where it grows.
Eyebrights are pretty little plants that are in fact semi- parasitical, which flower on seaside sand dunes, short grasslands, and on rocky ground. It is believed that there are around 11 different species of them that grow around the country, but they are all very variable, as they overlap in their characteristics and hybridise freely, so it is difficult to tell where one species ends and another begins.
The latin name for the Eyebright is Euphrasia salisburgensis, and they all have pretty two-lipped flowers which have purple stripes and a yellow spot in the throat. The Irish Eyebright is the only Eyebright that is easy to recognise from the others, as it’s its narrower green leaves are often flushed with a unique bronzy colour, and there are no hairs on the upper part of the fruit.
Early Dog Violet
The Early Dog-violet is a pretty plant, similar to the common dog-violet and can also be confused with sweet violet. The only real distinction is that the early dog-violet’s violet flowers are darker at their centre, and do not have a notch.
Early dog-violet is a native perennial, which can be found scattered all throughout Ireland, except in West Munster. The plants tend to grow to around 15cm tall and the flowers grow singularly to a stem. Another attractive feature is the heart shaped leaves, which are as wide as they are long. They flower early in the year, from March to June and thrive in areas such as woods, shady habitats, coppices and hedgebanks.
Despite sometimes being known as the English Primrose, the primrose is in fact also native to the Emerald Isle, and even has it’s own Irish name, ‘sabhaircín‘ (pronounced sour-keen). The eye-catching flower and its supporting plant are in fact edible and supposedly taste like lettuce!
The pretty yellow Irish flowers appear in shady banks, damp woods and along the roadside between the months of March and May.
And did you know that they were considered sacred by the Celtic ancestors? There is also a long history of primroses being used by those in Ireland who brewed their own cures and concoctions in days gone by. Some of the ailments they are believed to have been able to treat include headaches and toothaches, jaundice and burns.
Coltsfoot, or to give it it’s proper name, Tussilago farfara, is a flower in the daisy family and it has long been cultivated for its medicinal properties, both in Ireland and around the world. This includes it’s use as a cough medicine and brewed into herbal tea to treat a variety of other ailments. Although recently this has become a little controversial as concerns about it’s affect on the liver have emerged.
Many untrained eyes will tell you that the coltsfoot flowers resemble dandelions, with their similar yellow florets and long leaves. It grows well on disturbed grounds, and is often considered an invasive weed in gardens and agricultural land, and it can survive in all but the most acidic kinds of soil. Flowering normally occurs between March and April but colder temperatures can delay this further north.
The sea aster has made it onto our list of native Irish flowers because of the way in which it flourishes around the Irish coastline, as well as being found in saltmarshes, near estuaries, and occasionally near inland salt work. It is such a remarkably durable plant that it needs hardly any soil to survive and can even grow partially submerged in sea water or clinging to the cracks in a cliff face.
The sea aster is also known as the Tripolium pannonicum in Latin or luibh bhléine in the Irish language. It can be easily confused with sea lavender prior to flowering, but then the lovely, often dishevelled mauve and yellow flowers emerge and it becomes more apparent which is which. This flowering usually occurs between June and September and the plants can grown up to an impressive 1m high.
These pretty flowers are a valuable source of nectar for butterflies like the red admiral!
The correct name for this waterside shrub is Comarum palustre, but it is also known as marsh cinquefoil or as purple marshlocks. It is easy to recognise the distinctive star-shaped maroon-red flowers which appear between the months of May and June, as displayed in the photograph above. It is a very hardy plant for surviving in the cold, hence why it does well in Ireland!
This is not only a beautiful example of one of the wild and native Irish flowers, but it is worth mentioning because it is another excellent source of nectar for bees and butterflies. You are most likely to spot marsh cinquefoil lurking around the areas of Ireland’s marshes, bog lands, and along the shores of many an Irish lake.
Did you even have an Irish childhood if you didn’t have a buttercup held up under your chin to ascertain whether or not you liked to eat butter?!
There are three kinds of buttercup that are all native to and thriving across Ireland. All three have 5 bright yellow petals, but there are some subtle differences if you look closer, although it can be tricky as they often grow in close proximity to one another.
If you interested, you can read more about how to spot a creeping buttercup from a meadow buttercup from a bulbous buttercup HERE.
Once you start looking for them you will soon spot buttercups everywhere you look in Ireland. They have a fantastic root system whereby they send out runners to creep under the grass in meadows and lawns or in the hedgerows at the side of the road. This means that they can thrive everywhere, from uncut lawns to next to walls in urban areas, making them one of the more versatile Irish flowers.
This pretty violet flowered plant is also known as Salvia verbenaca in Latin or as tormán in Irish. The wild clary is a rare native subspecies which flowers mainly in dry grasslands around the counties of Cork and Wexford. It is a perennial plant which can grow to a impressive looking height of about 80 cm.
The deep violet-blue colour Irish flowers are complimented beautifully by the wrinkly, sage-like leaves they are accompanied by. They typically bloom from May to August and whilst they are a fairly rare find, they are truly stunning and worth the hunt!
Irish Funeral Flowers
A glorious send-off of departed loved ones is traditional for funerals in Irelands, and one of the important aspects of this is the flower arrangements.
Although these days we associate flowers at funerals with being a visual representation of grief, love and respect, the tradition of placing flowers around the body actually came about in early times as a way of disguising the smell of decay.
Luckily modern practises have better means of managing this, but the tradition of giving flowers has remained!
A traditional wreath in orange, green & white often used for Irish themed funerals. including flowers such are germini, roses & chrysanthemum.
The pictured Shamrock shaped arrangement above was made with green santini Chrysanthemums, double white Chrysanthemums and orange dyed Chrysanths, edged with aspidistra leaves and complemented with an emerald green cymbidium spray.
Traditionally, white flowers such as roses have been used at funerals, with lilies often used as a symbol of sweetness, peace and love to offer solace to the family of the deceased. Across the board the primary concern is the care and presentation of the deceased. The ritual of the funeral in Ireland is hugely important, and this includes the use of beautiful Irish flowers.
You can find out more about the kind of arrangements popular in Ireland HERE.
Irish Flowers and Bees
Irish flowers have never been so important before as they are in our current climate. As the landscape becomes more built up, we are losing safe nesting spaces for the bees and a reduction in flowers mean less food for them too. With over a third of Ireland’s bee species now in danger of extinction, there has never been a better time to find out what you can do to help out these vital creatures.
The All Ireland Pollinator Plan was created to give us all ideas about how to try to create an Ireland where pollinators can survive and thrive.
The good news is that there is plenty you can do from the comfort of your own garden! By choosing to grow pollen rich flowers, not only will you create a beautiful colourful environment for yourself to enjoy, you will also be providing the bees with much needed food.
Some of the pollen-rich Irish flowers recommended to plant as part of this plan are:
- Grape hyacinth
- Globe thistle
As well as making the conscious choice to grow some of these beautiful Irish flowers in your garden, there is another simple way you can support the plight of the bumblebee. Just cut your grass less!
If you wait until late April to give your lawn it’s first mow of the year, it will give some dandelions time to flower and provide the pollinators with much needed food in the Spring.
And having slightly longer grass year round will encourage more clover, dead nettles, selfheal and bird’s-foot-trefoil to grow too. These are all wildflowers that will grow naturally in Ireland and are wonderful food sources for the bees.