Thursday, March 17, 2016

A Celebration of Irish Plants by Donna Duffy

Trifolium repens, Photo courtesy

You probably know that in Ireland, all shamrocks are considered lucky and are worn and given as gifts on St. Patrick's Day. Most Irish growers will tell you that Trifolium repens, White Clover, is the plant most commonly known as a shamrock. In Colorado, this Irish shamrock grows in our lawns, in prairies, pastures and foothills. If you enjoy clover honey, you can thank this lovely little plant.

Trifolium repens, White Clover, is a perennial, non-native plant in Colorado, growing about 4 inches high. It is bee pollinated, and one pound of honey represents more than 17,000 bee foraging trips and 7,000 hours of bee labor! This is also a host plant for the beautiful Orange Sulphur butterfly. You probably recognize white clover in your lawn by its three leaves and white puff-ball flowers.

Red Clover, Trifolium pretense
Trifolium pretense, Red Clover, is the red cousin to the more famous white clover shamrock. It is also common in meadows and fields and along roadsides. You’ll easily recognize its pink-red flower. It is grown as a forage plant for livestock as well as for honey. Both species of this shamrock grow in zones 4-9.

But these aren’t the only wildflowers that Colorado shares with Ireland! Here are a couple more that you may see blooming this spring.

Blue-Eyed Grass, Sisyrinchium montanum
Sisyrinchium montanum, Blue-Eyed Grass, is a wildflower in its native Ireland (species bermudiana). Our Colorado species is non-native and a bit uncommon, but can be spotted in grassy meadows, plains and foothills in early summer. The foliage may look familiar to you; it’s a member of the Iris family.

Shepherd's Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris
Capsella bursa-pastoris, Shepherd’s Purse, is also native in Ireland and non-native in Colorado. You’ll see it blooming in the plains and foothills from about March to May. It’s quite edible! The young leaves make an excellent potherb; pods and seeds can be used as a spice for foods such as soup or may be ground into a meal; the young leaves may be eaten raw in salads; fresh or dried roots can be used as a substitute for ginger.

Irish Moss, Sagina subulata
If you’d like to honor the Irish with a landscape perennial, try planting Sagina subulata, Irish Moss, a luxuriant evergreen ground cover plant that grows in zones 4-8. In mass, it forms a lush green carpet, reminiscent of the Emerald Isle. Small star-shaped white flowers cover this flowering ground cover from late spring until mid summer. Try it between the flagstones in your landscape.

So, celebrate St. Patty’s Day with some Irish potatoes, perhaps a wee dram of Irish whiskey, images of wildflowers on the Emerald Isle, and an Irish blessing:

For each petal on the shamrock,
This brings a wish your way,

Good health, good luck, and happiness

For today and every day.