When I think of Ireland, my mind fills with images of rolling green fields and the traditional green shamrock, but the Emerald Isle is also home to a diversity of brightly colored wildflowers.
At certain times of the year, great swathes of Irish countryside burst into color, with purple heathers competing with the nodding heads of hundreds of native daffodils.
Not only are these native Irish flowers critical for the birds and insects that call Ireland home, but some were also considered sacred by the ancient Irish or gained special protection due to their medicinal value.
Of all the native wildflowers in Ireland, the shamrock is by far the most famous and carries great cultural significance, but it’s not alone. Some flowers provided gateways for the wee folk to pass between worlds, while others offered protection against evil.
What Is The National Plant Of Ireland?
The shamrock is a native Irish wildflower more widely known for its trio of heart-shaped leaves than its flower. Although the shamrock has been a symbol of Ireland for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, no one knows exactly which plant it comes from.
There are several native plants that all share a similar leaf formation, including wood sorrel and three different varieties of clover – yellow, white, and red. The most likely contender for the title of the shamrock is the yellow clover, but not everyone agrees.
What Does the Shamrock Look Like?
The shamrock is a small green plant with three to four heart-shaped leaflets. Its name comes from the Irish term “seamair óg”, meaning “young clover.”
Although Irish folklore maintains that “the shamrock is so entirely Irish it won’t even grow on foreign soil,” it is widespread throughout Europe.
Why is the Shamrock the Symbol of Ireland?
Irish legend claims that the shamrock first gained recognition in the 5th century when Saint Patrick used the three-lobed leaf to represent the Holy Trinity and help his pagan audience understand the basics of Christianity.
Given the significance of the number three in Celtic mythology, it’s possible that the shamrock already carried some cultural significance before this. The ancient Celts worshipped numerous triple goddesses and deities, including the goddess Morrigan.
In the 18th century, the shamrock’s status as a national symbol started to evolve when rival militias adopted it during the Irish rebellion.
Where to Find Shamrocks in the Wild
Not even the Irish know if they’re picking shamrocks or clover, and no one seems to care very much. As long as it’s green and got three leaves, it’s a suitable decoration for Saint Patrick’s Day!
The general rule of thumb when hunting for wild shamrocks is to look for three-leafed or trifoliate plants growing in tight clumps. Other types of clover, including the lucky four-leaf clover, tend to be a little larger and less sociable!
Shamrocks are nitrogen-fixing plants and can often be found in areas where the soil’s been disturbed. They also prefer bright, indirect sunlight and well-drained soils.
What Is The National Flower Of Ireland?
Although the shamrock sprouts a small flower, it’s never been the national flower of Ireland. That honor goes to the humble flax flower that appears on the emblem of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Flax flowers are a type of native Irish wildflower that grows scattered across the country. It gained significance in the 17th century when it was widely grown to produce linen.
Ireland became a production hub for linen at this time, largely due to the Huguenots bringing new techniques with them as they fled persecution in France.
When traveling around Ireland, you’ll often see the nodding blue heads of flax flowers growing along Irish roadsides and scattered across waste grounds.
15 Native Flowers of Ireland
The shamrock may carry more significance than any other plant in Ireland, but it’s not the only one with a role to play in Celtic folklore and mythology.
#1 Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta)
In April and May, Ireland’s forests erupt with color. Hundreds of bluebells flower, covering the forest floor with a violet-blue carpet.
This is one carpet you should avoid treading on, however, as disturbing could cause their bells to ring, calling the fairies forth from the other world.
According to Irish folklore, if you tread on a carpet of bluebells or wander into a circle of bluebells, you could be enchanted by fairies.
Bluebells, or Coinnle cooraas they’re known in Ireland, are commonly associated with love, humility, and gratitude, but not by the Irish.
To them, bluebells could prove fatal, especially if you heard a flower ring or if you harmed the fairies sleeping under their nodding heads.
#2 Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)
The Irish name for foxglove is Lus mór, meaning the Big Herb, presumably because it grows up to 2m tall and has some powerful and potentially fatal medicinal qualities.
It’s also referred to as Lus na mBan Sí or Mearacain na mBan Sí, which means the herb or thimble of the banshee. While I can’t find an explanation for this name, it doesn’t sound good!
Banshees were ghostly figures that warned of imminent death, while thimbles signified a life of spinsterhood, neither of which were very positive omens in ancient Ireland!
The foxgloves are toxic plants that typically bloom in early summer and can be seen decorating the sea cliffs of the Irish coastline, dotted around gardens and woodlands, and even gracing roadside verges.
#3 Wild Rose (Rosa canina)
If you were an Irish child in Cork, you might not know the wild rose by any name other than itchy backs!
Many Irish kids grow up persecuting each other with the bristly seeds of the wild rose which, once thrown down the back of your shirt, itch worse than a hairy caterpillar!
The real Irish name for wild rose is ‘muc-chaor’ which means ‘pig berry’ and refers to those same bristly seeds, comparing them to the stiff hairs of a pig.
Although the wild rose doesn’t appear to carry any great cultural significance in Ireland, it was planted in many gardens by residents hoping to grant favor with the fairies.
Of all the roses that grow in Ireland, the fairies are said to favor the royal rose, which they use to create rose crowns and “rose garlands to drape about their horses and chariots.”
#4 Primrose (Primula vulgaris)
When the primroses blossom, it’s a sign that spring is on its way, and their delicate yellow flowers brighten the roadsides, hedgerows, and the banks of many an Irish lake.
These beautiful Irish flowers may be small, but they carry great significance. The English primrose, or sabhaircín in the Irish language, had the power to protect you against the fairies, although a large patch of primroses was also thought to act as “a gateway or portal to the faerie realm.”
You could even bring good luck to your chickens by hanging a bunch of primroses on your coop, presumably because this pretty plant produces flowers a similar color to their own newly hatched offspring.
#5 Heather (Calluna vulgaris)
In the summer, Ireland’s marshes and bog lands are transformed into a sea of lilac and purple. There’s no better time to explore Ireland than between July and September when the heather blooms.
Great swathes of land are covered with these flowering plants, creating purple stripes across the emerald landscape.
There is little mention of heather in Irish mythology, but in Scotland, white heather is believed to be lucky as it marks a fairy’s final resting place.
#6 Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis)
Throughout Europe, the snowdrop marks the end of winter and the start of spring. They are some of the first Irish flowers to blossom, poking their delicate white heads out through the frosty ground.
Although snowdrops most commonly signify hope and new beginnings, a single snowdrop blossoming in an Irish garden is said to foretell death.
Known as Plúirín sneachta in Irish, snowdrops grow all over Ireland, favoring the damp soils of the woodlands and forests. There are several species of Irish snowdrops, including the ancient cultivar from County Kildare, the Galanthus Straffan.
#7 Daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus)
Daffodils are native woodland plants that grow across Europe and flourish in the moist soils of the Emerald Isle.
The Irish call these resplendent spring blooms, Lus an chromchinn, and they’re among the most popular of all Irish flowers.
In recent years, daffodils have been synonymous with cancer research, but 100 years ago, Irishwomen were using it “as a symbol in their battle for votes.”
The Irish Women’s Franchise League adopted the flower and the color yellow to symbolize “the spring-cleaning of our national home” and the start of a new era.
#8 Wood Anemone (Anemone nemorosa)
Found in much of Ireland, the wood anemone belongs to the buttercup family but can be distinguished from the meadow buttercup by its paler color.
Wood anemones only flower for three to four weeks which has led to them being associated with fragility and, for the Ancient Greeks, a sign of early death.
These rare beauties flourish in ancient woodlands across Ireland and blossom between February and April.
#9 Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella)
Wood sorrel favors the same habitat as the wood anemone and has a similar appearance, although it can be distinguished by the “distinctive pink veins in its white petals.”
Alongside red and white clover, wood sorrel is one of the various plants fighting for the title of Ireland’s shamrock. For many, wood sorrel, also known as false shamrock, is “the official plant” to celebrate Paddy’s day, while others maintain that red clover is the true shamrock.
Either way, wood sorrel was important to the people of Ireland and was referred to as Seamsóg, meaning sourgrass. It provided sustenance during famine and is mentioned in several works, including Edmund Spenser’s A View of the Present State of Ireland, in which he describes people flocking to “a plott of water cresses or shamrockes” as if “to a feast for the time.”
#10 Cowslip (Primula veris)
The small drooping yellow flowers of the cowslip glimmer in the early morning sun of the spring, bringing color to meadows, roadside verges, and woodland floors.
It belongs to the same family as the primrose and appears to have been regarded in much the same way. According to Irish folklore, cowslip could protect the home and farm from evil, just as primrose could.
The cowslip, or bó bleachtáin, is one of Ireland’s best-known small perennial wildflowers and, in years gone by, was used to make a remedy for insomnia. It was also rubbed onto a cow’s udders on May Day to protect her milk.
#11 Bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata)
Although the Irish call bogbean either Bearnán lachan or ponaire chorraig, its English name is more descriptive.
This robust little plant likes having wet feet and grows in many of Ireland’s marshes and bogs. It also produces a bean-shaped fruit while a stout stem raises its delicate white flowers high above the water.
Traditionally, the Irish would boil up bogbean to create a foul-tasting but effective treatment for various conditions, including indigestion and constipation.
#12 Wild Iris (Iris setosa)
Also known as the Yellow Flag because of its brightly colored flowers, the wild iris adds a splash of color to wetlands and woods when it blossoms in early May.
In Irish myth, the wild iris was a symbol of beauty, and the beautiful Étaín, who belonged to the Tuatha de Dannan, was described as having hair “like yellow flags in summer.”
Yellow Flags, also known as Feileastram, were also “put in fishing boats in Co Cork, to protect and bring good luck.”
#13 Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum)
Wild garlic grows all over Ireland in woodlands and parks, but there are certain hunting grounds that keen foragers frequent in their search for this pungently bitter herb. The Irish have been eating wild garlic for thousands of years, using it to flavor butter and to treat coughs and colds.
In Irish folklore, wild garlic was used as “a metaphor for sharpness or bitterness” and was an important edible plant. It was so valuable that a poacher stealing it from private land would have to pay a fine of “two and a half milch cows.”
Traditionally, wild garlic was added to salads, stews, sauces, and even cheese to add a little extra flavor.
#14 Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)
The marsh marigold is, as its name suggests, partial to wet ground and can be found alongside other water-loving plants like bog rosemary and marsh cinquefoil. It adds a vibrant flash of gold to the Irish midlands when it flowers each spring.
The marsh marigold was traditionally linked to the Celtic festival of Beltane when it would be harvested and strewn on doorsteps and windowsills to celebrate the return of summer.
In Irish, it is often referred to as Lus Buí Bealtaine, meaning the yellow plant of Beltane, or Riasc- bhláth órga, which means “the golden blossom of the marsh.”
Every spring, native Irish flowers turn the Irish landscape into a kaleidoscope of colors. Grassy pastures are painted gold as cowslips and primroses open their petals to welcome the summer sun.
While some native Irish flowers have important cultural significance, others were valued for their flavor and medicinal qualities.
Sadly, overpicking and intensive farming have left many indigenous plant species battling for survival. Their demise could leave pollinators without sufficient food and deplete local wildlife populations by removing their habitat.
Not only are these flowers and plants critical for Ireland’s environment and biodiversity, but they also give us a botanical link to our ancestors, who relied on these flowers for their culinary and medicinal qualities, as well as their magical properties.
You can help keep this green legacy alive by resisting the temptation to pick wildflowers and, if you’re living in Ireland, dedicating a portion of your property to the propagation of native Irish flowers and plants.
"Like many so-called Brits, I have a bit of Irish and a bit of Scottish in my blood, which is possibly where the red hair comes from. I’ve been fascinated by the history of Ireland for years, since I discovered the story of the Irish Pirate Queen, Grace O’Malley.