The mountains of Ireland and the British Isles have a diverse flora, and what can at first glance seem like a landscape dominated by rock, heather and grasses can reveal a wide variety of plant life.
Here are ten of our favourite plants to look out for when out in the mountains, (in no particular order). Some are quite common and easily found, others less so and require a bit of effort, but are then all the more rewarding when discovered. All of these lovely plants can be seen on our guided hiking tours in Ireland.
Bog Asphodel Narthecium ossifragum
The iris like leaves of bog asphodel grow to around 10cm and can be easily overlooked as they blend in with the other plants in the boggy heaths and moors where it is found.
However, once the 20cm flower spikes emerge in June it is hard to miss. The flowers are 12-15 mm across, bright yellow and star-shaped, with orange/yellow woolly anthers.
It’s Latin name ossifragum, means bone breaker and it was thought to be the cause of brittle bones in cattle, though the lack of calcium in the soils in which it is found is a more likely cause.
The flowers were believed to have been used as a hair dye in Lancashire in the 1600’s. Maybe the first evidence of dyed blonde’s?
Find it in the west and north of Britain, and throughout much of Ireland.
Saint Patrick’s Cabbage Saxifraga spathularis
St. Patrick’s Cabbage is a member of the so-called Lusitanian flora, a small group of plants that includes the Strawberry tree and which are native to Ireland, Spain and Portugal.
It forms a basal rosette of toothed, spoon shaped leaves from which emerges the single 30cm flower spike in May to August.
The five petalled, star shaped flowers are white/light pink and are borne on a number of panicles on each spike.
Find it growing amongst damp, acid rocks in the west of Ireland, where it is locally common. It is absent from Britain.
Spring Gentian Gentiana verna
This is one that you will have to go a search for. The spring gentian is widespread and common in southern and central Europe, but is rare in northern Europe, only being found in Teesdale in England and in the Burren in Ireland.
It grows on dry limestone grasslands where the piercing blue five petalled flowers emerge in May on the small 5cm tall plants.
It is said that picking the flowers and taking them indoors will bring great risk of being struck by lightning. You have been warned.
Common Cottongrass Eriophorum angustifolium (left below) Hare’s-tail Cottongrass Eriophorum vaginatum (right below)
The white fluffy heads of these tussock forming, narrow leaved plants are produced on stalks that can stand up to 50 cm tall. These are fruiting heads and not the flowers, which are yellowish brown and borne on short spikes in April and May, and often overlooked.
They grow on wet, boggy ground with peaty acid soils and are widespread and common in west and northern Britain and throughout Ireland.
The major difference between the species is that common cottongrass has multiple heads, while hare’s-tail cotton grass has only a single fruiting head.
Common Butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris
Common butterwort is easily recognisable by its’ basal rosette of yellow-green leaves, the plant is around 5 – 10cm across.
In May or June a slender stem emerges on which is produced a single violet like flower.
It is an insectivorous plant, the leaves exuding a sticky fluid that attracts insects. Once trapped, the plant then secretes enzymes that digest the prey. In this way it supplements its’ diet as the bogs and wet flushes in which it lives contain very little nutrients.
Widespread and common in the west and north of Britain and in Ireland.
Fir Clubmoss Huperzia selago
The clubmosses are a curious group of plants, whose lineage dates back 400 million years when they grew up to 40 metres tall and helped dominate the forests of the time.
Today they are only a handful of species in Ireland and Britain, the most common of which is the fir clubmoss.
Growing between 5 and 10 cm tall these branching plants have dark green spiky leaves growing directly from the stem, giving it the appearance of a small conifer.
Exclusively found on higher ground and in the mountains, it is very common in Scotland and can be found in the mountains of England, Wales and Ireland too.
Bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus
Known as the bilberry in England, blaeberry in Scotland and fraughan in Ireland, it is included here because we just love to eat them when out in the hills in late July and August.
A deciduous shrubby bush, it is easily recognised by its bright green young foliage in summer, and by its bare green stems in winter.
The pink, globular, pendant flowers are produced in May and early June, followed by the delicious black berries in late summer.
Widespread and common on acid heaths and open woodlands throughout Ireland and Britain.
Round-leaved Sundew Drosera rotundifolia
Another carnivorous plant, round-leaved sundew is the most common of three species found in Britain and Ireland.
They are identified by a basal rosette of reddish/orange leaves that are covered in hairs, each one topped by a sweet sticky secretion .
These attract and then ensnare small insects, often curling inward to further trap the victim. Prey insects are subsequently digested by enzymes secreted from glands in the leaves.
These insects are the predominant source of nutrition for the plant, which grows in nutrient poor wet acid soils.
Between June and August the plants will produce a single stem from the centre of the rosette, on which bloom several small white flowers.
Found widely in Britain and Ireland, predominantly in wet bogs.
Bog Rosemary Andromeda polifolia
Bog rosemary is a small evergreen shrub, growing to around 40cm but more typically to 10 -20cm.
The leaves are long and narrow to approx. 3cm and are glossy green above and pale beneath. Superficially they resemble the leaves of the herb rosemary, from which it gets it’s name. It is a relative of the heaths and of bilberry.
The flowers are pale pink, urn shaped, and emerge in May and June.
It can be found in acid bogs, often associated with sphagnum moss and is present in mid Wales, northwest England, parts of Scotland and in central Ireland. There is a significant local population in the Liffey Head bog in the Wicklow mountains.
To discover these wonderful plants, and more, join one of our guided hikes in the Wicklow mountains.