Around 12,000 years ago, Ireland was covered in snow and ice. This was known as the Ice Age. As the weather became warmer, the snow and ice melted and trees began to grow. The seeds of trees such as hazel and oak were brought here by birds and animals, across the landbridges from Britain and the rest of Europe. The seeds of other trees, such as willow and birch, are so light that they were blown here by the wind.

 

Eventually, the seas rose, the landbridges were flooded and Ireland became an island. Our native trees are the trees that reached here before we were separated from the rest of Europe. Our most common native trees include oak, ash, hazel, birch, Scots pine, rowan and willow. Eventually, people brought other trees, such as beech, sycamore, horse chestnut, spruce, larch and fir to Ireland.

Native Irish Trees

ALDER

Fearnóg

Alnus glutinosa

One of Ireland’s most traditional and widely distributed trees, alders may be found in damp areas, beside freshwater loughs and along river banks, where their strong fibrous roots may help to keep the bank in place. Alder woodlands are found in Ross Island, Killarney, Co Kerry and the Gearagh, Co. Cork, while Grantstown wood, Co. Laois is a rare example of wet woodland on an alkaline soil.
Like most trees, alder flowers before the leaves are out, with attractive reddish catkins and small cones that contain the seeds. Alder will grow in most soils, and likes wet sites. Given rich damp soil alder will grow rapidly and is a really productive tree for timber. In ancient Ireland sections of alder trunks were used as round shields. Later, it was used for making clogs and also in the furniture trade where it was known as ‘Irish mahogany’. As it is resistant to decay when submerged in water, alder is used to make sluice gates and other structures along streams, rivers and canals.

ASH

Fuinseog

Fraxinus excelsior

Ash is the commonest tree in Irish hedgerows, and is also a traditional woodland species. It will grow in a range of soils, not acid, and prefers well-drained sites. Ash woods are found in the Burren, Co Clare, and Hanging Rock in South Fermanagh.
The flowers are very dark, almost black, and may be seen before the leaves develop – ash is one of the last trees to come into leaf and is one of the first to lose its leaves in autumn. The seeds are clumps of winged keys. The pale dense timber makes good firewood and is also used for hurley sticks, snooker cues and furniture.

BIRCH (Downy)

Beith chlúmhach

Betula pubescens

There are two types of birch in Ireland, downy and silver. The most usual is the downy birch, which like silver birch is a delicate tree with fine branches and small leaves. The springtime flowers are catkins which stay on the tree and contain the mature seed by autumn.
Birch will grow in poor soils, but likes a sunny position. Downy birch is tolerant of wet sites, but silver birch needs good drainage. Birch woods occur widely, especially on marginal soils, lake edges, such as Lough Ennell Co. Westmeath, fens and on dried out bogs such as Ardkill Bog, Co. Kildare. Birch is typically associated with the Sperrins, growing in peat at the edge of bogs, and on the light sand and gravel soils.
It makes a good ornamental garden tree, as it does not grow too large. Like alder, its seeds are popular with small seed-eating birds such as siskin and redpoll. In early times toghers or walkways, usually across bog land were made from birch. Nowadays, it is more commonly used in making plywood.

BLACKTHORN

Draighean

Prunus spinosa

Spiny shrub of roadside and hedgerow, blackthorn forms dense scrub cover where it is left untrimmed and ungrazed.
It bears dense clusters of small white flowers, which contrast with the dark bark of its twigs, very early in the year. Blackthorn hedges can appear to be covered in white.
After the flowers, the small oval leaves appear, and then in autumn the harvest of sloes develops. These look like small damsons, but are very sour and are not eaten directly by people, although birds take them. Sloes have traditionally been used for flavouring gin or poteen. The use of blackthorn wood is mainly decorative, for example the manufacture of shillelagh walking sticks and tourist souvenirs.

CHERRY (Wild)

Gean – crann silíní fiáin

Prunus avium

One of our most attractive trees, with its white or very pale pink flowers in spring, followed by hanging cherries. The bark is also attractive, and the leaves provide autumn colour. Wild cherry is very common in St. Johns Wood, Co. Roscommon.
Cherry is often found in old field hedgerows where it may have been planted by man, but is also found in mixed deciduous woodland. The old farm trees may not be native in the sense of ancient woodland, but they are part of our rural history, like crab apple and old varieties of apple, pear, plum and damson, once grown in gardens and small orchards throughout the country. It is often used as a decorative wood in joinery and furniture making.

HAWTHORN

Sceach gheal

Crataegus monogyna

Hawthorn or white thorn was planted in hedges throughout our countryside. Its sweet smelling ‘May’ blossom is a feature in that month, and in autumn and winter the deep red haws colour the bare twigs. They are among the berries most favoured by birds. Only untrimmed hawthorn can flower and fruit freely, but hedges have to be cut to keep them stock proof. Hawthorn hedges may be trimmed regularly, or left for several years and then laid by cutting part way through the main stems and laying these horizontally through the hedge. Even old hawthorn hedges will regenerate if trunks are cut back to base and left to sprout again, but these must be fenced off so that farm livestock cannot reach the tasty young shoots and eat them. Like many other shrubs, hawthorn also grows in woodland where there is enough light – in open glades, along ‘rides’ through the woodland, or along the edge. A single tree may be left in a field as a ‘fairy thorn’, especially where there may be an archaeological site.

HOLLY

Crann cuileann

Ilex aquifolium

The evergreen holly is a native species which forms the shrub layer in some of our oldest woods. You may look for it in woodland, or in the narrow gullies of the Sperrins or Donegal uplands, where holly and rowan can survive the harsh upland conditions.
It is another visually attractive small tree very suitable for gardens as a specimen tree or as a hedge, slow growing and very dense. Holly trees are either male or female – only the female can bear berries, so it is always worth planting several holly trees together. Both sexes bear small creamy flowers.
Although they drop their spiny leaves all the year round, especially in the heat of summer, they are green all year, and along with ivy were traditionally used for midwinter or Christmas decorations, as a sign of green life to come. In some areas it is considered unlucky to cut down holly, and it may be left as standards along a hedgerow. The hard pale wood is valued for wood carving.

OAK (Pendunulate)

Dair ghallda

Quercus robur

Once widespread throughout Ireland, centuries of harvesting, with few trees being replaced, means that truly native oak can be hard to find, though there are small woods in most counties. Very often, semi-natural oak woodlands contain a proportion of birch and ash, with hazel, holly and rowan scattered throughout the understorey. Oak has been harvested for its fine timber for centuries and is much prized for its visual qualities and durability. It is commonly used in the making of furniture, for veneers and in the manufacture of casks. The male flowers of oak are borne on rather inconspicuous catkins, which come out just before the leaves, but the seeds – acorns – are far more obvious. Oak trees do not produce a good crop every year, so it is worth gathering plenty in a good year.
The pedunculate or English oak is also considered to be a native tree. It is generally associated with heavy lowland soils and can withstand wet soil in winter. These oak woods are found in Charleville, Co. Offaly and Abbeyleix, Co. Laois.

ROWAN/MOUNTAIN ASH

Caorthann

Sorbus aucuparia

Rowan adds colour to woodland throughout Ireland, especially in the hills where it will grow at a high altitude even on rocky ground: its other common name is mountain ash.
The creamy flowers ripen into scarlet berries which colour early in the season and provide food for thrushes through the winter. A mistle thrush will defend a rowan tree or holly as its territory, not for nesting, but through the winter as its feeding territory. Rowan is an attractive garden tree: it likes well drained sites but will thrive in most soils.

WHITEBEAM

Fionncholl

Sorbus spp.

These are small trees, quite unusual in the wild, and many imported specimens have been planted in towns and parks, along roads etc. If you want the truly native tree you may have to search – it is most common in the south of the country. Whitebeam leaves have a pale under surface, which explains its name, while the cream flowers ripen to red berries. The hard pale wood was traditionally used for small furniture such as the legs of stools.
There are several whitebeam species native to Ireland that may be found in wild woods or cliffs where they have escaped grazing. It can also be found in hedges. The most widespread is Sorbus aria, the common European whitebeam, which is most frequent in Co. Galway. Also found is S. rupicola, especially on cliffs, and S. devoniensis, and its distribution is restricted to Waterford, Carlow, Kilkenny and Wexford.
The distribution of a further three species is limited to certain parts of the country – S. latifolia, with broadleaves; S. anglica, which is found only in Co. Kerry and the only one unique to Ireland, S. hibernica, found on limestone across the midlands and in Glenveagh, Co. Donegal.

WYCH ELM

Leamhán sléibhe

Ulmus glabra

The wych elm is native, but many varieties of wych elm and smooth leaved elm have been introduced and planted in Ireland in the past, mostly for timber. Wych elm is chiefly found in mountain glens in the northwest of the country.
English elm was mainly planted in demesnes. In recent years many of these trees have died as a result of Dutch elm disease. English elms will re-grow from stumps and will form suckers in woodland or hedgerows – these may be used for propagation.
The Irish wych elm, which is less common, appears more resistant to disease. It does not produce suckers and must be grown from seed. Leaves are rough to the touch, oval withtoothed margins. The flowers, as with many trees, appear before the leaves. They are reddish clusters borne directly on the twigs, and are not obvious until they mature into pale green seeds which almost look like leaves, except they ripen and fall soon after the real leaves appear.

ARBUTUS (Strawberry)

Caithne

Arbutus unedo

Arbutus or the strawberry tree is a small evergreen tree, which in Ireland can grow to be a forest tree reaching heights of up to 15 metres. It has an unusual distribution, as it only grows naturally throughout the Mediterranean and certain parts of Ireland. Unlike many of our other native trees, which reached us via Great Britain, Arbutus is thought to have spread here over the land bridge from Brittany.
Called the strawberry tree because of the distinct shape and colour of its fruit, this species is found mainly in Co. Kerry especially in the Killarney district where it forms a large part of the natural forest on the islands and shores of the lakes. It is also found in unshaded parts of Glengariff Wood, Co. Cork and around Lough Gill in Co. Sligo.
Arbutus produces masses of white flowers in November and December. Since the fruit takes 12 months to ripen, the tree carries both mature fruit and flowers at the same time. The fruit itsef is edible, but as the Latin name unedo – ‘eat only once’ – implies, it is not very palatable.

ASPEN

Crann creathach

Populus tremula

The one definitely native poplar is aspen (all other poplars may be assumed to be introduced, although the black poplar is still being argued about). Aspen will grow into a full sized tree. The leaves make a distinctive sound as they rattle gently in the wind, and they have a sweet smell in the spring. Aspen can be found in wet areas and around lake edges such as in Glenveagh, Co. Donegal. Poplars produce seeds on catkins, but also spread vegetatively by suckers i.e. new shoots growing up from the roots. It is easiest to propagate aspen by cutting through roots and transplanting a sucker. A warning should be given about planting aspen in damp sites with good soil. They sucker very readily and may spread too far, taking over too great an area. Choose aspen if you don’t mind an invasion!

BIRCH (Silver)

Beith gheal

Betula pendula

There are two types of birch in Ireland, downy and silver. The most usual is the downy birch, which like silver birch is a delicate tree with fine branches and small leaves. The springtime flowers are catkins which stay on the tree and contain the mature seed by autumn.
Birch will grow in poor soils, but likes a sunny position. Downy birch is tolerant of wet sites, but silver birch needs good drainage. Birch woods occur widely, especially on marginal soils, lake edges, such as Lough Ennell Co. Westmeath, fens and on dried out bogs such as Ardkill Bog, Co. Kildare. Birch is typically associated with the Sperrins, growing in peat at the edge of bogs, and on the light sand and gravel soils.
It makes a good ornamental garden tree, as it does not grow too large. Like alder, its seeds are popular with small seed-eating birds such as siskin and redpoll. In early times toghers or walkways, usually across bog land were made from birch. Nowadays, it is more commonly used in making plywood.

CHERRY (Bird)

Donnroisc

Prunus padus

This species is most frequently found in the northwest, for example around Churchill and Lough Gartan, Co. Donegal. It is most easily spotted in the spring, around May, when the flowers are out. The creamy-white flowers are borne in rows along flower stalks about 10cm. long, and are quite obvious above the green foliage.
The dark berries or small cherries ripen in August, when the trees may be more difficult to locate, so you have to remember where you spotted them in the spring, (if you search for cherries after the 15th you may be too late!). It may be possible to mark them with a tie around the trunk. Bird cherry is worth the effort as it is an attractive small tree with true flowers and grows willingly, preferring good soil and a sheltered site.
Treat bird cherry fruit as common wild cherry.

CRAB APPLE

Crann fia-úll

Malus sylvestris

Like the wild cherry, crab apple has been deliberately grown around old farmsteads (and the fruit used for crab apple jelly) but is also a truly native species found in old woodland. Crab apple is found in hedgerows throughout the country. Unlike modern hybrid apples, crab apples grow true from the apple pips.
It is a small tree, very suitable for gardens. It bears attractive pink/white apple blossom in the spring, while the apples provide an autumn feature in the garden, as well as a useful crop.

HAZEL

Coll

Corylus avellana

A native species with many uses and an ancient history. Hazel nuts are one of the foods associated with the very earliest human settlements in Ireland of Mesolithic man, who also used hazel as the strong flexible timber for his huts. Hazel bushes may be coppiced i.e. cut right back to a stump, and will re-grow. The slender timber poles that result from coppicing were used in the construction of wattle and daub, and fences. Hazel is also a traditional material in the construction of eel and lobster traps.
Hazel grows as an under storey in oak and ash woodlands or as pure hazel woods. Hazel scrub woodland covers extensive areas of limestone, particularly on the Burren plateaus of north Clare and soils derived from limestone in the Glens of Antrim. It is often associated with a rich ground flora of woodland flowers. Hazel is well known for its yellow ‘lambs tail’ catkins in spring, but the nuts grow from small bud-like structures with a tuft of red – the stigma of the female flowers.

JUNIPER

Aiteal

Juniperus communis

An unusual shrub found in rocky areas, especially on the Burren and in West Donegal, and often at woodland edges.
One of our few native evergreens, juniper is generally found on limestone. It will thrive in other soils and could be introduced to areas outside its natural distribution, however, this may not be considered desirable. In good conditions it may grow to be small tree size.
Like holly, juniper is evergreen and bears flowers of different sexes on different plants. The bushes are small and usually low growing, the fruit black, and it can be grown from seed. The berries are used commercially to flavour gin.

OAK (Sessile)

Diar ghaelach

Quercus petraea

The traditional Irish oak is the sessile oak. It is the main species to be found in Ireland’s most familiar woodlands. Sessile oak is found more commonly on poor acid soils, often in hilly regions. These woodlands can be found in Killarney, Co. Kerry, the Glen of the Downs, Co. Wicklow and Glenveagh, Co. Donegal, to name but a few. They are important ecologically as habitats for hundreds of invertebrate species along with many species of birds and mammals. Sessile means that the acorns have no stalk while those of the pedunculate oak hang from long stalks.
Once widespread throughout Ireland, centuries of harvesting, with few trees being replaced, means that truly native oak can be hard to find, though there are small woods in most counties. Very often, semi-natural oak woodlands contain a proportion of birch and ash, with hazel, holly and rowan scattered throughout the understorey. Oak has been harvested for its fine timber for centuries and is much prized for its visual qualities and durability. It is commonly used in the making of furniture, for veneers and in the manufacture of casks. The male flowers of oak are borne on rather inconspicuous catkins, which come out just before the leaves, but the seeds – acorns – are far more obvious. Oak trees do not produce a good crop every year, so it is worth gathering plenty in a good year.


SCOTS PINE

Péine albanach

Pinus syvestris

Originally a native tree. Pollen found in soil samples from bogs indicates that Scots pine was widespread in Ireland thousands of years ago. Human impact and the gradual change to a warmer, wetter climate led to its decline, and it may even have died out completely. Pine stumps have been found in bogs, standing where they grew, 7,000 years ago, before the formation of the peat. Most of the pines around the countryside now were imported from Scotland and planted over the last 150 years.
Efforts have been made to reintroduce this once native species as in some situations it is fitting that Scots pine be encouraged. It can be grown on marginal land where other species of tree would not survive. It also matures quicker and produces more versatile wood than broadleaf trees. Even though it is a coniferous tree, it nonetheless supports a wide variety of wildlife as habitat diversity changes in line with canopy closure. Our native red squirrel prefers the seeds of this tree than any other.

WILLOW

Saileach

Salix spp.

There are several varieties of willow native to Ireland. All grow in damp soil, have catkins or ‘pussy willows’ that produce seeds, but are most easily grown from cuttings, which root very readily.

The most widespread willow species are the goat willow, the rusty or grey willow (both known as ‘sallies’), and the eared willow. While these generally grow on damp ground, the goat willow will also colonise rough and disturbed ground in drier areas. The bay leaved willow, with glossy green leaves, is found beside small rivers and ditches.

Osiers, with long fine leaves, do not develop into large trees. They were often grown and managed by cutting right back to the base to encourage long flexible shoots used for baskets. Now this species may be grown for biomass and provide a renewable energy source.

All willows are rich in insects and so provide a good food source for insect eating birds in summer, notably for the willow warbler.

YEW

Lúr

Taxus baccata

The yew is native and may be found in old woods although it is often seen in the artificial surroundings of estates or churchyards. An evergreen conifer (although an unusual one), yew is a dramatic tree with its dark foliage and red berries encasing a single seed. Reenadina wood on the Muckross Peninsula, Co. Kerry is Ireland’s only native yew wood. A sport (unique form) of the Irish yew (Taxus baccata ‘fastigata’) with very upright growth was originally found growing on rocky limestone hills in Co. Fermanagh. This was cultivated at Florencecourt, and subsequently in many gardens and churchyards. Many yews are single sex, but most Irish yews are female and so bear fruit. Even if the flesh is removed, these may be slow to germinate. The best seeds are those that have been eaten by birds and have passed through them; such bare seeds may be collected from under yew trees. There are ornamental garden varieties, some with yellow fruit or even golden foliage – these have to be propagated by cuttings. Yew trees do not need rich soil but they do need a well drained site, preferably not too exposed to wind or frost. The leaves are poisonous to most livestock, and the seeds are also toxic, so care must be taken in planting it where animals and children are not at risk. The fruit can be eaten safely by birds, and yew is in fact a good tree for wildlife as birds roost and nest in it.

Registered in Ireland No: 111380
Charity No: CHY 6799
CRA No: 20013417

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