Native Irish Plants for Your Garden

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Zebrina is an heirloom selection of the native Irish Common Mallow, with larger flowers that retain the lovely veining of the wild species.

Faith and begorrah, it’s St. Paddy’s Day once again! Celebrate the beauty of the Emerald Isle in your own garden by growing some varieties of native Irish plants. Even if your garden doesn’t have that enviable Irish mix of soft sunlight, gentle rain, and rich peaty soil, these plants (like so many immigrants!) have adjusted beautifully to the New World, and will be quite happy in a variety of climates and conditions!

Irish Moss

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If you have a brick or stone path laid in the soil, let Irish Moss grow in the cracks and gaps.

Otherwise known as pearlwort, Sagina subulata creates a blanket of (what else?!) emerald green moss that meanders around stepping-stones, spills over rocks and low walls, and fills in empty spaces in the garden. The one thing you must have to make a success of Irish Moss is sandy or gritty soil, well-drained but a bit on the dry side.

Irish Moss is a perennial, hardy in zones 4 through 7. Broadcast the seeds (you get 100 in a single packet just for this purpose!) and within a few weeks you will see green. Just an inch or two high and 3 or 4 inches wide, this moss forms a spongy cushion of solid coverage that feels as soft as it looks. Tiny white blooms complete the show in midsummer.

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Distinctive Pam’s Choice is a foxglove like no other! Expect bees and hummingbirds to visit those maroon-spotted interiors.

Fairy Thimbles

That’s Foxglove to us Yanks. Digitalis purpurea is the species native to Ireland, and it’s a biennial, with masses of gloriously freckled fuchsia-to-purple blooms on tall, straight stems. In Ireland it grows wild in ditches, beside the sea, on the moors, and in wooded areas.

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For an even leafier, more beautiful plant, pinch off the flower stems as they pop up on Bloody Wood Dock.

The native species sets foliage the first year and flowers the second, but thankfully we don’t have to wait that long anymore to grow Foxglove from seed. The Camelot series not only flowers the first year, it sets buds and blooms much earlier than other varieties. Two colors in the series come close to the native shade of the species: rich raspberry Rose and bluer Lavender. And you shouldn’t miss Pam’s Choice, a truly unusual combo of dark burgundy-maroon and ivory.

Bloody Wood Dock

Such a better name than “red-veined sorrel,” isn’t it? Found along the road (euphemism for “in the ditch”) in lowland areas of Ireland, Rumex sanguineus is a nutritious green that favors damp clay-ey soil in dappled sun to part shade.

Sorrel is not to everyone’s taste, and even those of us who love its lemony, bitter bite agree that it’s best eaten very young and tender. It makes a stunning ornamental annual. The splendid red veining and large, apple-green leaves create an eye-catching groundcover and edging, and are good companions to flowering plants in patio containers.

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Deer steer clear of these yummy berries. And Heritage is self-fertile, so you need only one (but who can limit themselves to that?!).

Bramble

Many species of Rubus are native to Ireland, including fruiting raspberries and blackberries. This shrub makes a lovely informal hedgerow, and thrives in the long summer days and cool, damp conditions of the island.

Heritage is a modern variety of the native Irish R. idaeus. It’s a thorny, self-supporting, nicely branched shrub that bears in early summer in most climates. The berries hold well on the shrub, and may even repeat. Whether you want to harvest the fruit for yourself or feed the birds in your garden, Heritage is a superb (and virtually carefree) choice.

Pot Marigold

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The glowing orange petals of Mandarin Twist give you an idea of why Calendula was used as a dye!

Calendula officinalis takes its name from the fact that you can find it blooming somewhere almost every month of the calendar, and in Ireland the bright yellow or orange daisies last from spring through summer and into fall.

This annual herb has been used as a topical ointment and a dye through the centuries, and is one of the best flowering plants you can add to the vegetable garden. Not only does it repel asparagus beetles and other destructive pests, it attracts beneficial bugs.

The species will self-sow if you let it, and it’s hard to discourage anyone, once they have grown a crop of these beautiful bold blooms, from letting it go to seed and return with even greater glory next season. Grow a cultivated variety such as Mandarin Twist for gorgeous cut-flowers, too. Just scatter the seeds in sunny, well-drained soil, and Pot Marigold will do the rest.

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Grow Scentsation near a garden bench or in the pollinator garden. It attracts so many beneficials and smells out of this world!

Woodbine

Wild honeysuckle in Ireland is a hedgerow staple. This woody climber threads its way up trees in wooded areas, tossing out honey-scented blooms of indescribable sweetness as it goes. Because it is an understory plant in the wild, competing for sunshine, it leafs out and then blooms very early to get a head start on the season.

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You can’t tell from this picture, but the lowest foliage of Black Scallop hugs the ground, choking out weeds and making a great groundcover to lock moisture into the soil.

Lonicera periclymenum is the native species, and you may want to try incredible Scentsation, a cultivated variety of that species. This honeysuckle has a more restrained habit than the wild form, which is important because this is a vine that can get out of control very quickly. Unlike most cultivars, it actually has more fragrance than the wild plant! It’s a hummingbird magnet extraordinaire, and its scent increases in the evening, attracting hawk moths and other night pollinators.

Bugle

Known as Thunder-and-Lightning by the old folks, Ajuga reptans is a perennial found in wooded areas and moist to wet grassy fields. Some dedicated Irish gardeners grow it simply to feed the Dark Green Fritillary butterfly; on this side of the pond, Painted Ladies sip its nectar.

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Summer Berries’ large, flat bloom clusters act as landing pads for hungry butterflies!

Black Scallop is a fine variety of Bugle (known in this country, with brutal honesty, as Bugleweed!). It starts blooming before spring is over, which brings butterflies on the wing. The foliage is very low-growing and spreading, a sort of natural mulch that really does a nice job of filling in bare space. Hardy almost everywhere (zones 4-11), Black Scallop thrives in full sun in the north, part shade farther south and west, and puts up with just about any soil provided the drainage is decent. A superb “plant and forget” choice.

Yarrow

Found in farmyards, fields, pastures, and roadsides across Ireland, Achillea millefolium is a carefree perennial with flat-topped flowers beloved of butterflies and bees. The species blooms in shades of ivory to pale pink; for the garden we prefer Summer Berries, a blend of vintage tones from ivory to old-fashioned Christmas red.

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Hard to tell from this picture, but Roman Chamomile is typically only 3-6″ high and no more than a foot wide.

Yarrow is a butterfly favorite because of the shape of its flowerheads, which make nectaring easy, and because it blooms over a very long season. To bring on even more blooms, force yourself to cut the first ones back as soon as they begin to pass; this will speed up new bud set, and you can do it several times a year. Give Yarrow good soil drainage and adequate water while it’s growing, but don’t overfeed it. Poor soil brings on more flowers, while richer grows more foliage!

Common Chamomile

Once found across Ireland in heath meadows, grasslands, and grazing pastures, wild Chamaemelum nobile is now found only occasionally in the southwest part of the country. It loves low-lying, wet fields, and depends on animal grazing to control the taller species that would crowd it out. Now its best display is often seen in home gardens.

Chamomile (known as Roman Chamomile here, to differentiate it from German Chamomile, an entirely different genus) is an herb with a fresh-cut apple scent and summer-long daisies that are simply enchanting. Beneficial insects visit it, making it a good companion to vegetable and flowering plants in the sunny garden. This long-lived perennial is the source of the famous English chamomile lawn; in your landscape, add it everywhere you want long-lasting color, sweet scent, and “good bugs” that will attack garden pests.

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The Falling in Love mix will usually start blooming in spring, and if there is a more glorious way to greet garden guests, we want to see it!

Corn Poppy

Probably introduced into Ireland rather than a true native, Papaver rhoeas is found growing wild in cornfields (hence its common name), ditches, and other areas of disturbed soil. The native is a dark scarlet, and has become the symbol for the fallen soldiers in World War I (when it grew profusely in the hastily-dug graveyards and churned-up battlefields of France). Its flowers last only one day, but the bees find them and visit continuously!

Falling in Love is a nice mix of P. rhoeas varieties, selected for their large size (3 inches) and double or semi-double petal count. We love the mix of white, pink, and red shades. This annual is just right for any well-drained soil — the lighter the better; sand is great! — and will flower all summer.

Common Mallow

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3 feet high and 2 feet wide, Mystic Merlin covers itself in blooms!

Another plant that was probably brought into Ireland in the distant past, Malva sylvestris is a perennial sporting bright lavender-purple blooms with darker streaks and stripes. Like the Corn Poppy, it thrives in disturbed soils, and can often be spotted from the train, poking out of the soil banks on which the tracks are set. It also likes seaside locations.

The species forms a dense, shaggy, somewhat climbing plant, long on foliage and short on blooms. We recommend some of the newer cultivars, which keep the striped petals of the species but tone down the foliage and amp up the flower production. Mystic Merlin is an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous variety with flowers in every shade of blue from azure to royal purple.

Even though this is called Hollyhock Mallow in the United States, it is best grown as the scrappy wanderer it really is. Poor soil suits it just fine, and drought is no problem. The best part? It blooms the first year from seed. Give it a go as a perennial in zones 4-8, or as a glorious annual outside its hardiness range.

Daisy

Most emphatically not known as English Daisy in Ireland, Bellis perennis is among the most widely distributed and best beloved wildflowers on the Emerald Isle. The species is a white-petaled, yellow-eyed single flower, the classic flower we think of when we hear the word “daisy.”

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In Ireland the daisy grows in full sun, but in this country you might give Habenera Red Tips a bit of shade or dappled light.

Some Irish gardeners regard Daisy as a weed, and it certainly makes itself at home without an invitation. But the sight of a meadow, field, or lot filled with daisies is unforgettably beautiful, and no Irish child grows up without seeing this most common wildflower popping up in cracks in the pavement, roadside ditches, and railway banks.

For a sophisticated take on Bellis perennis, consider Habanera Red Tips. Not a very Irish name, to be sure, but look at what can be done with the friendly little daisy! These 2-inch double blooms have slender, quilled petals held in a swirly pattern and tipped in scarlet. Magnificent — and easy to grow by scattering seed in the spring garden.

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Of course, you may want to grow some plants that reflect the recent history and popular culture of Ireland rather than its native species. In that case, potatoes (native to South America) are indicated, as is cabbage (native to southern and western Europe, including England, but not to Ireland!), and of course the symbol of luck in the language of flowers: Bells-of-Ireland, hailing from North Africa.

Ah, our gardens are glorious melting pots, after all! Happy St. Patrick’s Day to gardeners everywhere, and Erin Go Bragh!

About Sappho Charney

Sappho Charney is a garden writer living in Lubbock, Texas.

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