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The Wild Flowers of the Cliffs of Moher

There is something very beautiful about Irish wild flowers, their pastel shades and shapes stop you in your tracks and take your breath away. They have been painted, photographed and etched into Irish history and culture the world over. Who doesn’t know the signifience of the national flower of Ireland, The shamrock!   The practice of using these special plants for all sorts of cures for humans and animals alike is steeped in Irish folklore and they have many associations and connections with Celtic mythology and tradition passed on and shared through generations.

In Ireland, each of the four seasons, Samhain, Beltane, Imbolg and Lughnasa, are celebrated with festivals and traditions, all connected to native Irish plants and flowers. Thankfully many of these traditions continue unchanged and it is with great delight that someone still leaves wild flowers, usually furze or fern on the  front doors of the houses in villages and towns across the country every May eve, to protect the occupants for the year from the fairy folk!

Why are flowers and plants of the Cliffs of Moher so interesting?

More than 700 different species of flowering plants, conifers and ferns have been recorded in the Burren and Geopark, this means that about three-quarters of Ireland’s native flora grow in the region. They also grow here in greater abundance than anywhere else in Ireland or Britain. The natural mixture of wild plants in the Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark is astounding and is the main reason for the areas botanical legacy and fame. All the plants that arrived in the area within the last 15,000 years are here because the entire area was covered by glaciers in the last ice-age and when milder conditions prevailed, plants from southern, warmer regions became established.

 

Though the Burren may not seem mild sometimes, the average air temperature in Winter is about 6°C  (43°F) and frost is not usually an issue. In summer the average air temperature is 15° (59°) and westerly and south-westerly winds are frequent as are westerly gales in Winter. With plenty of rainfall, the rotational grazing cycles of farmers and the mild conditions, the growing season for plants in the area is longer than that in any other part of Ireland. The temperature of the soil even in the coldest winters never falls below the minimum temperature for the growth of grass which is 6° C.  Maiden hair ferns and dense flowered orchids thrive here as do Spring gentians which grow here at sea level but which also inhabit the highest slopes of the Pyrennees and the Alps!

The Cliffs of Moher has a further interesting dimension to its rock type, the limestone here is capped with shale and so is loved by plants that will only grow in lime-free soil, such as Sheep’s Bit, with its striking blue flowers often found dotted along the Cliffs edges and gravel areas.

Cliffs Drone view of centre

Ireland has almost 1,000 native plants.

Over the recent past, many of these species have declined in numbers and have even disappeared in parts of the country.  There are various reasons for this, including changing agricultural practices, mowing of roadside verges, drainage schemes and overgrazing. Under the Wildlife Act, 1976, our rarest species are protected under the 1999 Flora Protection Order (FPO), which also includes a number of mosses, liverworts, lichens, and algae.

It is an offense to cut, uproot or damage these plants unless under license from the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.   It is also an offense to will-fully damage or interfere with the habitats in any way except under license.  The FPO lists 68 species of plants for strict protection.

Wild Flowers of the Burren

Much of the Burren has been recognised as being of major international conservation interest: over 30,000ha of the region has been designated as a ‘Special Area of Conservation’ (SAC) under the EU Habitats Directive.

The EU Directive on the Conservation of Habitats, Flora and Fauna (92/43/EEC), commonly known as “the Habitats Directive”, was adopted in 1992, came into force in 1994 and was transposed into Irish law in 1997. The main aim of the Habitats Directive is to contribute towards the conservation of biodiversity by requiring Member States to take measures to maintain or restore natural habitats and wild species listed on the Annexes to the Directive at a favourable conservation status. These annexes list habitats (Annex I) and species (Annexes II, IV and V) which are considered threatened in the EU territory. The listed habitats and species represent a considerable proportion of biodiversity in Ireland and the Directive itself is one of the most important pieces of legislation governing the conservation of biodiversity in Europe.

 

The listed habitats and species

Annex I: Habitat types whose conservation requires the designation of Special Areas of Conservation.

Annex II: Animal and plant species whose conservation requires the designation of Special Areas of Conservation

Annex IV: Animal and plant species in need of strict protection.

Annex V: Animal and plant species whose taking in the wild and exploitation may be subject to management measures.

Website for fascinating info on Irelands species and reports https://www.npws.ie/publications

The very attractive Marsh Fritillary butterfly is the only Irish insect listed on Annex II. It is a colonial butterfly with most individuals remaining in discrete patches of habitat. It’s major food plant is the Devils Bit Scabious, which grows along the grassy banks at the cliffs of Moher, how fabulous is that.

More info on this plant and this precious Butterfly in the section on flowers.

We need to safe-guard and protect our native flowers and weeds to protect the delicate balance of life in our unique habitats and ecosystems, along with our fascinating plant heritage and plant diversity.

Please remember…

Please don’t pick the wild flowers at the Cliffs of Moher, why not take a photograph and send it through to marketing@cliffsofmoher.ie and win a custom painted flower on Irish slate from a local artist.

Include your name as well as your contact details and at the end of the year we will announce a winner for the best image and flower identified!

Remember: Leave the flowers to self-seed and thrive. Nature knows best!

Flowers at the Cliffs
Hedge Woundwort

Biodiversity

Apart from their natural beauty, native wild plants and flowers are vital for biodiversity and the ecosystem service they provide as pollinators. They are the most important host plants for the many insects that rely on them as a vital food source. Birds don’t feed their young on berries or seeds, they need to forage approximately 1000 insects a day 80% of which are caterpillars. These caterpillars and insects are very plant specific, and only live on our native flowers, weeds and trees, so without the wild host plants the caterpillars will not be present and the birds will not reproduce. Insect populations have dropped around 75% worldwide and the loss of host plants is catastrophic. This is evident by the reduction in bird populations, amphibians, small mammals and the use of chemicals.

Each flower of Hedge Woundwort is very beautifully marked with lines to help bees in search of nectar! Photo taken at the Cliffs in August 22.

Lesser Hawk Bit nestled in between the flag stones

Some plants have adapted to the gales and salty air and have stayed closer to the ground to survive like Plantain. Some have naturally dwarfed, like the ordinarily tall Alexander’s, which probably accounts for why it flowers later at the Cliffs. They have found refuge in cracks in the rocks, behind the flag walls for protection and in hollows and dips away from the wind, resilient and determined.

Sheep’s-bit

Sheep’s-bit

Latin name: jasione montana

Irish name: DUÁN NA GCAORACH

This very pretty downy biennial with its rounded, blue flower heads is found only on lime-free soil such as that overlying the shale at The Cliffs of Moher. It is also known as Sheep’s-bit Scabious. It can easily be mistaken as a composite which is a member of the daisy family, but the florets have a 5 toothed calyx (outer part of the flower made up of sepals).

It has bright blue rounded flowers arranged in a compact head (15-25m on a slender stems.  Its leaves have wavy edges and are hairy, grey-green and short-stalked.  The plant is in flower from May to September.  This plant is a native and belongs to the family Campanulaceae.

Found dotted along the edge of the path and grassy banks  near Hags Head and along the goats trail.

Birds-Foot-Trefoil

Birds-Foot-Trefoil

Latin name: Lotus corniculatus

Irish name: CROBH ÉIN

This much loved little yellow perennial is common thorough out the Burren, from seaside to the summits of the highest hills and cliffs and limestone pavement. It is a member of the pea family. It is one of the most abundant flowers in the region and it forms carpets of yellow –sometimes tinged with orange-red petals. It has many local names, a favourite being, hens and chickens! Wasps, bees and butterflies are attracted to this plant which flowers from June to September. The leaves are alternate. It is the distinctive seed pod which gives the plant its name, when ripe resembles a bird’s foot. This is the principal larval food plant of the Common Blue Butterfly.  Bird’s-foot Trefoil is a native plant and it belongs to the family Fabaceae

Similar in appearance to some clovers, birds foot trefoil with its long tap root is a perennial legume, which can be used in pastures to improve animal health. The tannins and other compounds in the plant not only reduce bloating in animals but also have anthelmintic properties (used to destroy parasitic worms!) and help aid the digestion of protein.

The Victorian’s used flowers as symbols, known as ‘’The language of flowers’’ and birds foot trefoil was used to symbolize revenge!

Found in grassland along the cliffs path and among other grasses and heathers.

Sea Campion

Sea Campion

Latin Name: Silene uniflora

Irish name: COIREÁN MARA

As its name suggests, this beautiful perennial occurs mainly near the sea and on rocky coasts and Cliffs.  Growing from June to August, it has snow-white flowers (20-25mm across), with overlapping petals. The calyx (outer part of the flower) is inflated to form a bladder and remains inflated below the petals of the open flower. As it inflates it becomes paler and may be tinged red and its network of veins becomes obvious. Sea Campion’s grey-green leaves are slightly fleshy which helps it to retain moisture in the face of sea winds. This plant is a native and belongs to the Carophyllaceae family.

It attracts butterflies and other pollinating insects.

Bladder Campion is one of the food plants of the froghopper – an insect known for wrapping itself in a frothy mass we call ‘cuckoo-spit’.

Often eaten in times of scarcity either boiled or eaten in salads or the leaves pureed like spinach and records show it was once cultivated for food and for its health benefits.

This plant was thought to be an emollient and was used as soap in baths and for washing clothes. The roots are simmered in hot water to obtain the soap. An infusion was used externally to treat wounds, scabies, itching and various skin conditions!

Found near hags Head in carpets of flowers and soft growth and snuggled between warm flag stones and gravel.

Thrift

Thrift

Latin name: Armeria maritime

Irish Name: RABHÁ

Thrift also known as Sea pink, produces cushion-forming hummocks of grass like -green leaves with pink or violet flowers along cliffs, coastal areas and salt marshes from April to July.  The small individual flowers appear in almost spherical, papery heads 15-25mm across, on slender, leafless stalks.  Thrift is also found in some mountain locations. This is native plant and belongs to the family Plumbaginaceae. 

The common name Thrift probably refers to way that the leaves are closely packed together so as to conserve moisture in the salt-laden sea air.

Thrift is a familiar and distinctive plant that forms soft cushions of striking flowers along the cliff walk and verges.

Thrift appeared on the old English twelve-sided three-penny-bit which was introduced in 1937!

Found all along the paths to the Cliffs on both sides and behind walls protected from the wind.

Yarrow

Yarrow

Latin name: Achillea millefolium

Irish Name: ATHAIR THALÚN

Yarrow, Plant of a thousand leaves!

Yarrow or Milfoil is a very common, strongly aromatic perennial of pastures, roadsides and waste grounds throughout Ireland. It has adapted to thrive in the often windy conditions at the Cliffs from June until November. This is a native plant and belongs to the family Asteraceae/daisy family. Each flower is made up of numerous small daisy-like heads of even smaller flowers, in white and occasionally pink.

These leaves are called millefolium meaning thousand leaf

Yarrow Continued…

The leaves of this plant are very beautiful – millefolium meaning thousand leaf – dark green and feathery, with numerous very fine slightly jumbled leaflets. Yarrow is very aromatic and has been used since ancient times as a herbal remedy, and even as an aphrodisiac! It is a famous wound and fever herb and the rolled up leaves can be used to plug the nose to stop it bleeding. Tinctures, teas, lotions and ointments are all made from this amazing plant, and it has a further dimension to its history: it is a herb of divination, used by the Druids for predicting the weather! Archaeologists have found that Yarrow has associations to human kind for over 60,000 years. Noted for attracting wildlife, Yarrow is one of the best producers of nectar in relation to the small space the plant occupies, it attracts birds, butterflies, bees, hoverflies and many other insects.

Yarrow is found along the cliffs path on both sides and both white and pink varieties are quite common at the Cliffs of Moher.

Bucks Horn Plantain

Bucks Horn Plantain

Latin Name: Plantago coronopus

Irish name: ADHARCA FIA

Bucks Horn Plantain is such an attractive plant which grows mostly at coastal locations around Ireland.  Its distinctive feature is the rosette of lobed leaves. From the centre slender spikes of tiny 4-petalled flowers grow, with prominent brown stamens. Each spike being about 3-5cm long.  The flowers bloom from May to October on un-furrowed stalks.  This is a native plant which belongs to the family Plantaginaceae.

This wildflower gets its name from the shape of the individual leaves which are said to resemble a buck’s horn.

It was used as a medicinal plant for treatment of fevers.

Found at the base of the stone walls along the path at Hags Head.

Sea Plantain

Sea Plantain

Latin name: Plantago maritime

Irish name: SLÁNLUS MARA

Also known as Goose Tongue this hardy plant grows near the sea on rocks, stone, or concrete sea-walls, and on salt-marshes and bare ground by the sea or on mountains. The leaves are flat, with a slight longitudinal curl, without cuts or downy hairs. They are fleshy and linear over most of their length before slowly tapering to a blunt tip and have a distinctive crescent-shaped cross-section.

The flowers (3mm across) have a pale brown arrangement of petals/corolla with yellow anthers, the pollen bearing tip of the stamen and are in spikes about  4-10 cm long.  They bloom from June to August.  This is a native plant and belongs  to the family Plantaginaceae.

Once gathered as fodder to feed livestock.

Found at the base of the stone walls along the path to Hags Head and in more sheltered areas along the path on both sides.

Alexanders

Alexanders

Latin name: Smyrnium olusatrum

Irish Name: LUSRÁN GRÁNDUBH

Alexander’s is a tall hairless perennial (comes back every year) with a strong smell a bit similar to wild celery. It has notable, dark green, shiny leaves which consist of three broad, oval leaves.

The flowers are greenish-yellow, sometimes pale pink, in umbels 4-6cm across.
It is one of the early Spring plants and can be seen from February to June/July, but has adapted to the conditions at the Cliffs to grow smaller and flower later! The seeds are black and ridged and make a fantastic substitute to black pepper! Alexander’s can grow up to over 1m high. It is now considered to be a native Irish plant, having been introduced prior to 1500 AD.

It has established it’s self widely and grows particularly well near the coast.
It belongs to the family Apiaceae.

Alexander’s attracts insects in early spring when few other species are flowering.

This plant can be found in sheltered dips and in grassland along the path to the centre from Hags Head.

Sea May Weed

Sea May Weed

Latin name: Tripleurospermum maritimum

Irish name: LUS BEALTINE

Sea May Weed is a very pretty flower of the daisy family. It grows mainly on shingle and waste ground in coastal areas and along the Cliffs from April to October. It loves a bit of nitrogen in the soil and the best bird rocks can be identified by its abundance. It is not picky or choosy, however, and is often among the first flowers to colonise cracks in bird rocks and rocks that are regularly submerged beneath the waves. The 20-40mm flowers have yellow centres (disc florets) and white petals.

The fleshy leaves, like camomile are also very attractive and this is one of our native coastal plants and belongs to the family Asteraceae. 4

Found near Hags head where it forms carpets of soft leaves and abundant flowers from April.

Sneezewort

Sneezewort

Latin name: Achillea ptarmica

Irish name: LUS CORRÁIN

Another beautiful but less common flower to be seen at the Cliffs of Moher is Sneezewort, or bachelors buttons! Is it a tall daisy like perennial that is usually at home in damp grassy areas and marshes. Similar to Yarrow to which it is related, but the flowers unlike Yarrow, which has 5 petals, have three more, eight in total. It flowers from June to September. The leaves of Sneezewort don’t have stalks and are narrow with finely serrated edges. This is native plant belonging to the family Asteraceae.

The strongly pungent smell from this plant is said to induce sneezing, indeed the dried and powdered leaves have been used as a sneezing powder!

Found along the path from Hags Head, sheltered in tall grass.

Hedge Woundwort

Hedge Woundwort

Latin Name Stachys sylvatica

Irish Name Créachtlus

Found along the path and in low grassy patches to the Cliffs of Moher, this upright, strong –smelling plant with leafy spikes of purple flowers that grow in whorls around the stem. Its genus name Stachys ‘’means spike of flowers’’. A member of the Mint family, but with a rather unpleasant scent. It flowers from June to September and is an important flower for insects. Each flower is marked with beautiful lines that help bees in search of nectar. Bees and flies are held in place by little hairs at the mouth of the flowers, where the pollen is picked up ensuring fertilisation and pollination. This is called co-evolution, and many insects and plants have developed special relationships with each other over thousands of years.

The leaves are heart shaped and vary in size, with the lower leaves being longer. It is a native plant and has many herbal uses and as it’s nane implies was regarded as a very good herb for dressing cuts and other wounds. Wort is the old word for herb! Woundwort is used for aching joints when made into an ointment and is said to have sedative properties when taken as a tea!

The 17th century herbalist John Gerard and the famous English botanist and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper, from the 1600s, both used Woundwort for various ailments including preserving the liver and bodies of men from disease and from witchcraft.

Devils Bit Scabious

Latin name: Succisa pratensis

Irish Name: Odhrach bhallach

The striking blue/purple, pincushion like blooms of this native flower can be found along the grassy banks at the Cliffs Of Moher. It is in bloom from June to October. It’s rounded flower heads attracts a variety of insects and bees and it is also the main larval food plant of the declining and very beautiful Marsh Fritillary Butterfly which is the only insect listed in Annex 11of the Habitats Directive of Ireland.

The Marsh fritillary (Euphydryas aurinia) is an attractive butterfly with chequered wings of brown,orange, black and white. The adults have a short flight period of 4-6 weeks in May and June. The larval stage is the longest part of the annual life cycle lasting nine months. The larvae live communally in a silken web which they spin over the leaves of the foodplant devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis).During the winter they hibernate together in a small web hidden within the vegetation. After hibernation, the caterpillars resume feeding but become increasingly solitary until they pupate in late April.

Devils Bit Scabious is a medium sized perennial and has oval shaped un-toothed leaves. Striking pink anthers adorn the flower heads on long slender stalks.
Scabious plants were used to treat skin conditions such as scabies (a contagious skin infestation and even bubonic plague! Devil’s-bit scabious is still used in the treatment of eczema and other skin conditions. Other uses include the treatment of coughs, fevers and internal inflammations, and externally to treat bruises or conjunctivitis. Young shoots are edible and sometimes used in spring salads.

The story goes that this plant got its name due to the fact that its root stops straight across and the explanation for this was that the devil bit it off in rage at the medicinal properties of the plant!

From the winds blowing over the region to the relatively warm waters of the Atlantic ocean and the mass of bare limestone acting as a giant storage heater the Burren region is a unique landscape and is home to a vast array of flowering plants, mosses, lichens, ferns, fungi and grasses for one area, making it unique, utterly beautiful, full of wonder and possibilities and once visited, totally unforgettable.