The Burren, County Clare, Ireland

Bloody Cranesbill Geranium sanguineum on The Burren
Bloody Cranesbill on The Burren

The Burren nestles against the Atlantic shores of southwest Ireland and covers most of northwest County Clare and just the southwest corner of County Galway. Rare flowers thrive there although none unique to The Burren; but what is unique, and unrivalled anywhere else in Europe, is the remarkable coexistence of warm-climate and cold-climate mountain and lowland species. Take, for example the lovely Spring Gentian Gentiana verna found high up in the Alps and the Pyrenees, and Mountain Avens Dryas octopetala, a wildflower of the tundra: they both bloom on The Burren, alongside Dense-flowered Orchids Orchis intacta, also known as the Irish Orchid, more commonly associated with Madeira, the Canaries and other southern European countries.

Also in The Burren you will find coastal cliffs and sand dunes, meadows and scrub, woodland and heath, bogs and small streams - some above ground and others in cave systems deep down beneath the limestone surface. And there are loughs, some permanent (although the water level drops dramatically in summer) and others seasonal and called turloughs. These turloughs are lowland areas that fill with rain water in the winter months, only to dry out again during the summer. They are home to fascinating plants that can survive total submersion for half the year and dry conditions for the other half - notable amonst these is the Marsh Helleborine Epipactis palustris.

Okelly's Orchid
Dactylorhiza Okellyi is one of the rare orchids found in The Burren

For anybody interested in wild orchids, the unique landscape of The Burren has to be right at the top of the list of must-visit places. Many orchids prefer chalk-rich soils and so the limestone of The Burren provides them with the ideal habitat. The mild Atlantic climate and the heat-storing qualities of the limestone make this a most hospitable place for those delicate orchids seeking a warm, moist climate, while the exposed, rock-strewn hilltops suit others. One of the great pleasures of wandering through The Burren is that so many orchid species can be found in a relatively small area, and around 24 of Ireland's 28 native orchids have been found there.

There are also areas of scrub and woodland that are worth investigating, as these are places where Broad-leaved Helleborines can be found. Wherever the limestone layers are terraced, patches of flower-rich grassland can be found and these are favourite spots for severals kinds of orchids as well as Spring Gentians.

Each of these areas is worth a visit and has its own distrincive range of plants as well as many that are common to all of them. But, it is surely the flat hilltops of The Burren that represent the strangest of plant communities, for that is where plants of the Arctic jostle for position with orchids and other wildflowers that are usually more at home in the Mediterranean region.

Below: Rare elsewhere, Narrow-leaved Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza traunsteinerioides on The Burren
Narrow-leaved Marsh-orchid

There are numerous signed pathways throughout The Burren and from these many of the lovely flowers of the area can be seen and photographed without the need to venture into bogs or take part in dangerous rock-climbing exercises! Limestone pavement is very slippery when wet and so care needs to be taken when walking in the rain - a not uncommon passtime in this part of Ireland. Also, there are very deep crevices in between the blocks of pavement, some of them deep enough to conceal a man of 6 feet in height.

Although many of the flowers are easy to find, some good places for information during your visit to The Burren are The Burren Centre in Kilfenora, which has a Burren exhibition and shop as well as a cafe Tel:+353(0) 65 7088030 - www.theburrencentre.ie - and the Burrenbeo Resource Centre in Main Street, Kinvara which also has a cafe - www.burrenbeo.com

List of Orchid Species found in The Burren

Scientific Names Common Names
Anacamptis morio Green-winged Orchid 5
Anacamptis pyramidalis Pyramidal Orchid 5
Anacamptis pyramidalis var. Albiflora Pyramidal Orchid - white variety 2
Cephalanthera longifolia Sword-leaved Helleborine 2
Dactylorhiza cruenta Leopard Orchid 5
Dactylorhiza ericetorum Dactylorhiza ericetorum 5
Dactylorhiza fuchsii Common Spotted-orchid 5
Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp coccinea Early Marsh-orchid 5
Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp incarnata Early Marsh-orchid 5
Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp orchroleuca Early Marsh-orchid 2
Dactylorhiza incarnata ssp pulchella Early Marsh-orchid 5
Dactylorhiza maculata Heath Spotted-orchid 5
Dactylorhiza majalis Broad-leaved Marsh-orchid 5
Dactylorhiza majalis ssp occidentalis Western Marsh-orchid 5
Dactylorhiza traunsteinerioides Narrow-leaved Marsh-orchid 5
Dactylorhiza viridis Frog Orchid 4
Epipactis atrorubens Dark-red Helleborine 4
Epipactis helleborine Broad-leaved Helleborine 1
Gymnadenia conopsea Chalk Fragrant-orchid 5
Gymnadenia densiflora Marsh Fragrant-orchid 5
Neottia nidus-avis Bird's-nest Orchid 7
Neottia ovata Common Twayblade 1
Ophrys apifera Bee Orchid 7
Ophrys insectifera Fly Orchid 7
Orchis intacta Dense-flowered Orchid 2
Orchis mascula Early-purple Orchid 5
Platanthera bifolia Lesser Butterfly-orchid 2
Platanthera chlorantha Greater Butterfly-orchid 2
Spiranthes spiralis Autumn Lady's Tresses 2

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