Made in Munster: Plants that are unique to a province

Made in Munster: Plants that are unique to a province
Exposed limestone bedrock at the Burren National Park. Picture: iStock

Fiann Ó Nualláin follows in the footsteps of the Fianna as he explores a province’s hills and vales.

Ireland has some species of plants that are not to be found in other parts of the world or are distinctive by being the improbable cousins of a genus that grows in altogether different terrain under harsher extremes.

Our mythology usually clears up the confusion, explaining it as the germination of a dropped fruit brought back by a voyaging or questing Fianna hero. 

Quite a lot of these marvels are found not just in the uniqueness of the Burren but in the vales and hills across Munster.

Clearly one such Munster-based Fianna member took a holiday to the hot Mediterranean basin and didn’t declare the bushel of weird fruits at the customs on the way back. 

To that we owe the presence of An chaithne or the Killarney strawberry tree (Arbutus unendo) — a small, broadleaved evergreen tree of the ericaceae (heather) family.

STRAWBERRY TREE

Made in Munster: Plants that are unique to a province

This tree really is a marvel — it is in fruit and flower simultaneously. The white drooping cluster blooms tinged with pink or green are similar in shape to lily of the valley. 

The strawberry-shaped fruits are edible but not palatable to humans as evident by the botanical term “unendo” — meaning eat only one.

They take a year to ripen. The natural habitat and distribution of arbutus is common to developing woodland (especially oak) and to rocky outcrops. 

It is also coastal and amazingly lime tolerant — most unusual for an ericaceous plant.

Arriving as a find of Na Fianna or via a pre-Ice Age land bridge to Brittany, it has made home across southwest Ireland — notably Killarney — and you will find its beauty adorning Glengarriff wood and other parts of Co Cork.

KERRY VIOLET

Made in Munster: Plants that are unique to a province

Pinguicula grandiflora aka Leith uisce is not a botanical violet at all, but a blue-flowering butterwort with near cousins in South and Central America. 

It is part of the Lusitanian flora that connects Ireland with regions of Spain and the Basque Country. 

And whenever I see it, I do think of the Mileseans of our history who came from Spain and drove the Tuatha dé Danann underground.

Fitting so, for my conjured “come into the parlour, said the spider to the fly” scenario, that this carnivorous plants survives off the digestible juices it extracts from trapped flies and other lured insects.

Its sticky rosette-forming foliage a sure prison and its exuded enzymes an acid bath to its victims. Gruesome for a pretty violet. 

Its habitat is the fens, flushed moorland and acidic bogs of Munster. 

Some years its abundance on the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks remind me of pray flags up the side of Everest.

KERRY LILY

Made in Munster: Plants that are unique to a province

Simethis planifolia, aka Lile fhíonáin, is a stunning small perennial with narrow grasslike leaves that curl toward the tip and appear greyish in shading. 

The six petal blooms are white with purple veins. They flower in loose clusters in June and July. 

First chronicled in Ireland by Reverend Thaddeus O’Mahony, a professor of Irish at Trinity College in 1849, it is confined to Derrynane in Co Kerry and has to date not spread or naturalised in any other region of Ireland. 

It has been introduced to Britain and is found in north Africa and southern Europe. 

The Fianna made sure they got their sightseeing in.

O’KELLY’S ORCHID

Made in Munster: Plants that are unique to a province

Dactylorhiza fuchsii subsp okellyi is considered a find of the 1900s and one of those “how did I never notice that before” plants. 

It may well have been growing away along the Burren edges for thousands of years unnoticed or at least not noticed by the notetakers or it simply, suddenly, mutated from a common spotted-orchid (Dactylorhiza spp) and just as happenstance.

To this day the O’Kelly’s orchid remains in contention as to whether it is a separate species. 

The plant is named for that keen botanist Patrick Bernard O’Kelly of Ballyvaughan, Co Clare. 

This white, summer flowering, sweet-fragranced orchid’s prime habitat is the Burren and neighbouring calcareous grassland. 

It is occasionally found in marshier Clare sites. In later years it has been found in Scotland and the Isle of Man so maybe it does have older heritage. 

Both places have associations with ancient wayfaring Irish warriors. 

Yet it does not have an Irish language name distinct from other orchids in its genus. A great conundrum.

IRISH WHITEBEAM

Made in Munster: Plants that are unique to a province

Sorbus Hibernica is a cousin of mountain ash, known as an fionncholl and Bíoma bán. 

It is a medium-sized, deciduous tree in the rosaceae family. Conical in youth, it matures to a broad dome. 

Young trees show a smooth grey bark that while maturing will flake and form fissures. 

A stunner with dense-headed white clusters flowering in May and June. 

Exclusive to Ireland, it populates calcareous woods and limey soils and is a darling of Co Clare.

KILLARNEY FERN

Made in Munster: Plants that are unique to a province

Trichomanes speciosum/t.radicans, aka Raithneach Chill Airne, is a plant I always inspect when I visit the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin. 

In my childhood it was kept in a special glass room that maintained its specific survival needs; a humid dark location. 

Eerie and enthralling, it was kept in the same glasshouse as the giant Victoria waterlilies but for me this was the awesome one, its near-translucent fronds ascending from a creeping rhizome.

While I hate to end on a unhappy note, this rare plant was always under threat. 

If climate continues to change then it is the one that we may lose quickest from the wild. 

We have a saying in Ireland: “An rud is annamh is iontach” — what is seldom is wonderful. 

That doesn’t mean what is near extinction should be allowed become a footnote. 

We should celebrate these Munster marvels and do what we can to ensure future generations experience them in a living natural history not in history books.

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