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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
Pedunculate Oak 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.