Many of the plants you’ll see in the upland areas are specially adapted to living in very wet, exposed conditions, or in the acidic, waterlogged environments of the blanket bogs and wet heaths, and while the presence of a particular plant species can give you a good idea of the habitat type, it’s important to remember that many areas of the Irish uplands are covered in mosaics of different habitats intermingling with each other.
These are a few of the most commonly found or notable plant species you can expect to find in the Irish uplands.
- Sphagnum Moss / Sphagnum
- Heath Bedstraw / Galium saxatile
- Bell Heather / Erica cinerea
- Bog Asphodel / Narthecium ossifragum
- Bog Myrtle / Myrica gale
- Bracken / Pteridium aquilinum
- Common Cottongrass / Eriophorum angustifolium
- Common Milkwort / Polygala vulgaris
- Cross-Leaved Heath / Erica tetralix
- Gorse – European Gorse / Ulex europaeus and Western Gorse / Ulex gallii
- Heath Milkwort / Polygala serpyllifolia
- Heath Rush / Juncus squarrosus
- Ling Heather / Calluna vulgaris
- Lousewort / Pedicularis sylvatica
- Mat-grass / Nardus stricta
- Round-Leaved Sundew / Drosera rotundifolia
- Sweet Vernal-grass / Anthoxanthum odoratum
- Tormentil / Potentilla erecta
- Rowan / Sorbus aucuparia
- Purple Moor-grass / Molinia caerulea
- Sally/Sallow Willow / Salix cinerea
Species Distribution Maps courtesy of the National Biodiversity Data Centre.
There are 24 species of sphagnum moss in Ireland, with many of these found in the wet heath and blanket bog. Each sphagnum plant is small and columnar, about 5cm in height. One of the most important plants in maintaining a healthy ecosystem in blanket bogs, sphagnum mosses form a carpet across the bog surface, with thousands of individual plants packed together. Some are easily recognisable by their bright green colour when saturated with water, though they can vary in colour from green to pink, orange or red depending on the type of sphagnum. Acting like a sponge, they can hold up to 20 times their own weight in water trapping it within their tiny branches. In the short term, it forms a substrate that other plants can grow in; over thousands of years, the organic matter from dead sphagnum builds up, compressing to form peat which is why it’s known as “the bog builder”.
Irish Name: Luibh na bhfear gonta
Heath bedstraw (Galium saxatile) is a low-growing plant growing to about 30cm in height. It has bright green leaves with sharp points at their tips, and can spread to form a dense mat over the ground. A common plant, it is abundant through the unimproved grasslands, acidic heathlands, and rocky places of upland areas. Heath bedstraw flowers from June to August, and its small clusters of tiny white flowers give off a sickly smell.
Irish Name: Fraoch cloigíneach
Bell heather (Erica cinerea) is a native, evergreen dwarf shrub found in the dry and wet heaths of the Irish uplands. It grows up to 50cm in height, although lower in exposed areas, and has dark green, needle-like leaves. Flowering from June to September, it has small bell-shaped magenta flowers in clusters, and whorls of leaves arranged along each stem.
Irish Name: Sciollam na móna
Bog asphodel (Narthecium ossifragum) is a native, perennial plant that grows to about 30cm in height, with stiff, sword-shaped leaves growing from the root. The flowers are very easy to spot in July and August, on tall thin stems with bright yellow petals and orange tips. Watch out for the upright, bright orange seed heads in autumn. Growing in wet peaty ground, you’ll spot this in blanket bog and wet heath habitats throughout most Irish upland areas.
Irish Name: Roideóg
Bog Myrtle (Myrica gale) is a small, heavily scented shrub found primarily in the uplands on the west of Ireland. Reaching up to 1 metre in height, it produces catkins throughout April and May, with orange male catkins and red female catkins growing on separate plants.
Bog Myrtle has been used for flavouring beer, producing dyes, and deterring insects. Look for it in blanket bog, wet heath and upland lake shores and check out its distinctive smell released when its leaves are crushed.
Irish Name: Raithneach mhór
Bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) is a large fern that you will commonly see across many habitats in upland regions. Spreading spores on the wind, it grows rapidly in heath, grasslands and open woodlands, forming dense impenetrable areas of vegetation up to 2m high. In autumn, the fronds turn brown and die back, and can suffocate other plant growth, quickly leading to a monoculture. Bracken does however provide shelter and nesting protection for a large range of wildlife.
Irish Name: Ceannbhán
The Common Cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium), or Bog Cotton, is a native sedge seen in wet heath, grasslands and blanket bog, and is often found growing in standing water. It has narrow, dark green leaves, and throughout April and May, you’ll notice it by its distinctive fluffy, cotton-like white seedheads.
Irish Name: Lus an Bhainne
Common Milkwort (Polygala vulgaris) is a low-growing plant that’s easy to miss amongst the taller plants in the upland’s unimproved grasslands. It flowers between May and September with clusters of between 10 and 40 small purple-blue flowers along each stem.
Irish Name: Fraoch naoscaí
Cross-Leaved Heath (Erica tetralix) is another native evergreen heather common in the uplands, although this one occurs more frequently in the wetter heath areas and blanket bog. It likes waterlogged, peaty soils, and takes its name from its grey-green needle-like leaves arranged in whorls of four along the stem. Clusters of pale magenta, almost closed bell-shaped flowers appear at the end of each stem from May through to September.
Irish Name: Aiteann, Aiteannach
There are two main species of Gorse, also called furze, in the Irish uplands – European Gorse (Ulex europaeus) and Western Gorse (Ulex gallii). They are quite similar in appearance, although given suitable conditions the European Gorse can grow up to 2m in height compared to 1m for the Western Gorse. European Gorse is more widespread across the island of Ireland, while the Western Gorse is mostly restricted to areas along the east, southwest, and some areas of the north.
Gorse grows in heathland, unimproved grassland, and is also found on scrubby banks and cliffs. A spiny evergreen shrub, the flowers can be used to identify between the two species. While both have bright yellow flowers, European Gorse flowers are coconut scented. While they can seen be all year round they are most abundant between February and May. Western Gorse flowers between July and September, and the flowers are unscented.
Irish Name: Na deirfiúiríní
Heath Milkwort (Polygala serpyllifolia) is a low-growing plant that you may find in the unimproved grasslands, dry and wet heaths, blanket bogs, and rocky ledges in more mountainous areas of the uplands. It has small oval-shaped leaves, and produces short spikes of blue flowers between May and September. Unlike the Common Milkwort which can have up to 40 flowers per stem, Heath Milkwort usually produces less than 10 flowers on each stem, each flower around half a centimetre in size.
Irish Name: Luachair chaoráin
Heath Rush (Juncus squarrosus) is one of our native rushes, growing up to 35 cm in height, depending on the conditions. It favours heathlands and stonier areas near streams. Heath Rush forms a neat clump of stiff, green and white leaves that are very thin and sharply pointed. Forks in the stiff flowering stems are surrounded by greenish-brown sheaths from which flowers emerge throughout the summer months, producing brown nut-shaped fruits. It is common in overgrazed heath, and areas that have recently been burned.
Irish Name: Fraoch mór
Ling Heather (Calluna vulgaris) is a clump-forming evergreen shrub that can grow up to 70-80cm in height, but is generally much lower. Its tiny, waxy leaves are packed closely along its stems, helping it to reduce water loss in the exposed upland environment. It is common in heath lands, especially dry heath, the edges of unimproved grassland, and is present but less abundant in blanket bog. Small, purple-pink flowers are present from August to September. Its seeds can remain dormant in the soil for many years, helping vegetation recover post-burning.
Irish Name: Lus an ghiolla
Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica) is a small plant with ragged leaves that forms dense, creeping clumps of about 20cm in height. It is commonly found growing with Tormentil and the various heathers in wet heath and blanket bog habitats. From April to July, pale lilac/pink hooded flowers with three lower lobes and a bladder-like calyx appear lots of on short stems. Like yellow rattle, it acts parasitically on the roots of grasses and other plants growing nearby, stealing nutrients from them.
Irish Name: Beiteán
Mat-grass (Nardus stricta) is common in the unimproved grassland areas of the upland regions, especially those grazed by sheep, and can also be found to a lesser extent in the wet and dry heaths and blanket bogs. Ungrazed, it can reach a height of 25cm but is commonly shorter. It has hard, bristle-like blue-green leaves that are rolled or folded along the midrib and produces slender flowering stems from June to August.
Irish Name: Drosera rotundifolia
The stunning but easily missed Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) is one of only 11 insectivorous plants in Ireland. It produces a ring or halo or sticky red hairs around the edges of its round leaves, each of which holds a drop of dew (hence its name). Insects are attracted to this and become entrapped in the gluey liquid, eventually being digested by the plant. It is found growing in sphagnum mosses and bare peat in waterlogged wet heaths, blanket bogs and flushes (where water runs over the ground in the rockier upland areas).
Sweet Vernal Grass
Sweet Vernal Grass
Irish Name: Féar cumhra
Sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum) is a native, short-lived perennial grass that reaches between 30 and 50cm in height. It can be found in most upland habitats, including unimproved grassland meadows, heath, and blanket bog. Flowering between April and June, flowerheads are clusters at the end of the stem. As its name suggests, it has a sweet smell and is a favourite chewing grass, tasting slightly of vanilla.
Irish Name: Néalfartach
Tormentil (Potentilla erecta) is a low-growing perennial herb with glossy, deeply toothed leaves. It is widespread throughout the uplands, growing in a variety of habitats including grasslands, dry and wet heaths, blanket bog and wooded areas. Flowering from May to September it has buttercup-like yellow flowers, but is distinguishable by only having four petals on each flower.
Irish Name: Caorthann
One of the few trees you’ll find in upland regions, the Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), or Mountain Ash, is a hardy native tree adapted for mountain life, able to grow even on very thin soil on rocky terrain. Although it can grow up to 10 meters in height, in the exposed upland environment, weathered Rowans are generally much shorter, usually less than 4m. It has creamy flowers throughout May and June, producing scarlet red or orange berries in the Autumn. Birds may defend these trees vigorously to protect the berries as a winter food source.
Purple Moor Grass
Purple Moor Grass
Irish Name: Fionnán
Purple Moor Grass (Molinia caerulea) is an attractive grass that you will see in the wet heaths and grassland areas where it often dominates the vegetation. It forms large hummocks with leaves at their base. From July to September, flowering stems reach up to 1m tall holding purple sprays of tiny flowers along the tips, The blue-green leaves turn an orange colour in Autumn before fading to white in winter.
Irish Name: Saileach
Also known as the Sally or pussy willow, the Sallow Willow (Salix cinerea) is commonly found in the uplands, especially beside mountain springs. One of the most resilient willow species in Ireland, it grows even in the most exposed sites and loves waterlogged ground. There are several subspecies, including the Grey Willow and the Rusty Willow. An important nectar producer, Sallys produce catkins in late spring. It can reach heights of up to 10 metres, although this is unlikely in uplands areas. The presence of this small shrubby tree gives the Sally Gap in Wicklow its name.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service funded the development of the Irish Uplands Forum Upland Biodiversity webpages through the Peatlands Community Engagement Scheme 2023.