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In the Garden: 'Encouraging appreciation of our native plant species'

Go native. Irish species boost biodiversity - and are very beautiful, writes Gerry Daly


Bluebells in Co Kerry

Bluebells in Co Kerry

Bluebells in Co Kerry

In many countries, there is a movement towards the increasing use of native wild plant and flower species. This is driven by a range of issues: the remarkable beauty of natives, their fitness for local climatic conditions, water conservation, species conservation and gardening to support wildlife. While the range of Irish native species is not as exclusively endemic as those of South Africa, New Zealand, Australia or California, many of which are grown in gardens here, there is certainly a good showing.

Native trees are likely to be best represented - birch, hazel, holly, hawthorn, wild crab apple, alder and willow. Birch is widely grown as a garden tree and it is usually just the same as the wild species. Hazel is a common wild tree in woods, rocky places and hedgerows. Wild holly is a fine garden tree. Hawthorn is very decorative, good for hedges as well as full-size trees. Mountain ash is a common garden tree, usually in selections from the wild species.

Wild crab apple is not as often seen but makes a magnificent specimen in flower when mature. Alder and willow are at home in wet ground, able to cope with winter flooding where non-native species would struggle. Grey willow or sally is widespread on wet land and goat willow is similar but has bigger leaves. These willows often blow in as colonisers of disturbed wet ground on garden sites, but they are rarely planted despite their value for wet ground. Aspen is a good tree but tends to sucker. Ivy is present as a wild plant in almost every garden and can be useful as a ground cover. Big native trees like ash and oak are not really garden trees, unless there is plenty of space.There are relatively few shrubs that are native and suitable for garden use. The guelder rose, Viburnum opulus, is common in some parts of the country but not much planted though foreign viburnums are. Elder is a large bush or small tree, often self-sown, and cut-leaf and purple forms of this plant are grown. Furze has significant drawbacks as a garden shrub but it might suit a bank on dry land, away from buildings. Blackthorn is a small tree or large bush, but has suckering roots and is far too invasive for garden use, except perhaps in an out-of-the way spot. Spindle is a small tree or large bush, well-behaved enough for garden use with good fruits in autumn. Broom is already well represented in gardens with selections from the wild species, often with red colour. While thanks to birds, the common blackberry or bramble finds its way into our gardens, but has no value.

But the wild roses, the dog rose and sweet briar, which are both pink, and the white-flowered field rose are actually less rampaging than some of the imported roses. The small shrub rock-rose is native, as is shrubby potentilla, and versions of both are widely grown in gardens. Tutsan or hypericum is woody at the base and appears in gardens, though rarely planted. Of the non-woody plants, there are quite a few wild plants that can be used in gardens, such as meadowsweet, purple loosestrife, ragged robin, and valerian in wet places; yellow flag iris and marsh marigold in the watery edge of a pond; and primroses, red poppies, mallows, wild marjoram, mullein, dog violet, foxgloves, dog daisy and field scabious in dry areas, all in sunlight except primrose which copes well under hazel. Also good in the shade of native trees are native bulbs and tubers - wild garlic, bluebells, wood sorrel, pignut, goldilocks and wood anemone, all in well-drained soil, and the early flowering buttercup-like lesser celandine likes damp soil in light shade or sunshine. In a wildflower lawn, birdsfoot trefoil, hawkweeds and self-heal are pretty. Cow parsley, ground elder, docks, thistles and ragwort are too weedy for use, but they can be decorative, self-sown, and admired at a distance by roadsides and such places.

All of these flowers are common wild natives and easy to grow, given the right soil and site conditions. Some might prove a bit too invasive, such as meadowsweet and purple loosestrife but they are less invasive than some imported perennial flower species. Not surprisingly, given our tendency to overlook wild plants, few of the plants mentioned are readily available to buy. Some can be found, such as trees in forest nurseries, for instance, and others can be grown from seeds, but try to get seeds of Irish provenance.


LEARN TO GROW: If you want to learn to grow your own, sign up for a Kitchen Garden workshop at Festine Lente Victorian Walled Garden, in Bray, Co Wicklow, where you'll learn how to feed your veg, crop rotation and more. February 24, 3-4.30pm; festinalente.ie

BRANCH OUT: Look out for Forest: Walking among Trees (Pavilion Books, €35) by writer Matt Collins and photographer Roo Lewis, the latest tomb to join the growing literary niche of books celebrating our trees. Divided into 10 species, this hardback beauty explores their heritage, use - from truffles to gin - alongside stunning photos.

SIGNS OF SPRING: Inspiring poets and gardeners since forever, there is no more potent harbinger of spring than the much-loved daffodil. Hundreds of kinds exist: early and late, big and small, all scented, that blaring trumpet that shelters precious flower parts and visiting bumble bees.

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