6 Plants with Irish Roots for Saint Patrick's Day
Saint Patrick’s Day has been celebrated in Ireland for about 1000 years to honor its most famous patron saint. Despite what many assume, Patrick was not born Irish. He was born a Roman citizen in the province of Britannia in the fifth century and was actually captured as a boy and enslaved in Ireland for six years before escaping. He returned to Ireland as a missionary many years later. Contrary to the legends, he probably did not rid Ireland of snakes, but he is credited with converting the Pagans (who often used snakes in their symbolism) to Christianity by using the shamrock (a three-leaf clover) to explain the Holy Trinity.
Since then, Ireland holds its faith and its Patron Saint dearly as part of its national identity. March 17th is celebrated worldwide to honor Saint Patrick and Irish culture with parades, feasts and wearing green. And because a lot of North Americans trace their roots back to Ireland, Saint Patrick’s has become a much-loved celebration of Irish culture on this side of the Atlantic too.
Whether you’re celebrating for religious reasons, or simply because you love wearing green, we think you’ll enjoy learning about these plants with an Irish connection.
1. False shamrock
True shamrock plants (Trifolium) grow outdoors (in fields, lawns and often as ground cover), so they would not survive an indoor environment. Therefore, oxalis is the next best thing when it comes to plants with three triangular leaves. Oxalis come in shades of bright green or burgundy purple, often with a silver or pink mark.
Even though the leaves look like flowers themselves, in the growing season you will see delicate white or pink flowers sprouting from between the shamrock leaves. At night, the leaves close into a pattern and open again the next day to receive daylight.
Oxalis is an easy-to-grow plant that likes a bit of moisture, rich soil and bright indirect light. Don’t worry if the growth slows down in the cold dark months. The rhizomes are resting and storing energy, so you’ll likely see your oxalis plant bounce back in the spring.
2. Pot marigold
Irish legend has it that there’s a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow, and the treasure is well-guarded by a mischievous leprechaun. This is, of course, a cautionary tale about what happens when you chase ill-gotten gains. The plant that has come to symbolize this legend - the pot marigold - is a very popular flower that can be grown both in the garden and in indoor pots.
Pot marigolds come in a variety of shades of orange and yellow. They flower throughout the year, from spring all the way through late fall, and require minimal maintenance. Even though they die back at the start of the cold season, if you let the seeds fall onto the ground, you’ll have pot marigolds again next year without having to lift a finger. That’s almost better than a pot of gold, right?
3. Lady fern
Ferns are very common in Ireland due to the damp and dark climate that makes it an excellent environment for moisture-loving plants to thrive. And even though lady ferns (Athyrium filix-femina) started life as wild plants, nowadays they are cultivated as centerpieces or fillers in home gardens.
This Irish native is easy to grow in the shade, and it forms dense clumps that spread rapidly and fill in even the toughest places to access in a garden. Wildlife doesn’t like to feed on ferns, so it’s the perfect plant to have if you have problems with deer or other critters digging through your garden.
4. Irish moss
Just like oxalis resembles shamrock, Irish moss resembles moss, but it’s in fact a perennial plant popular as a ground cover in gardens all across Europe and North America.
This herbaceous plant is a dense evergreen in warm climates, but the foliage may turn brown temporarily due to insufficient water and too much sun. The dainty white flowers give it an elegant aspect in rock gardens and as a filler on dry, sandy and gravelly soil.
Irish moss tolerates foot traffic, so it’s often planted around alleys and in between stepping stones for a bit of non-invasive greenery.
5. Ash bonsai
One of the most famous legends about Saint Patrick revolves around his walking stick made of ash wood. The legend says that Patrick planted it firmly in the ground when he began to preach. While at one location in Ireland, he preached so long and boisterously that the staff took root and bloomed into a tree before he had finished.
While rooting an entire tree from a dead branch is not likely to happen, the ash tree is known to be a fast-growing deciduous flowering tree.
Sure, growing an ash tree requires a large property and a lot of patience. But how about an ash bonsai? Ash is a fast grower, so it will require frequent pruning, but that’s half the fun for any bonsai enthusiast out there.
6. Yellow iris (Iris pseudacorus)
There are about 280 varieties of irises, and most of them are native to Europe. Irises thrive in Ireland because they like to grow along riverbanks, marshes, lakes and ponds. But they’re also happy in home gardens and will thrive in any garden that benefits from moisture and the change of seasons. The one advantage of growing irises is that they self-propagate through rhizomes, so once you’ve established a cluster of irises, it’s easy to just “set it and forget it.”
If you’re interested in learning more about flora specific to Ireland, this website by Zoë Devlin has an amazing collection of photos and information about the wildflowers of Ireland.
Another good source of information is Habitas, an official publication from National Museums of Northern Ireland.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!