Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Saint Patrick's Cabbage

Saint Patrick and Shamrock go hand in hand, like bread and butter or Laurel and Hardy. Legend has it that the saint used the three leaved Shamrock to demonstrate the Christian holy trinity, how the father, son and holy spirit could exist as one. Yet, while Saint Patrick makes numerous references to the trinity in his writings, nowhere does he mention the Shamrock (1). The association came some time after his death, most likely the co-opting of a pagan symbol into Christianity. Indeed the identity of the Shamrock is hazy to say the least, with various sources identifying it as wood sorrel, white clover and black meddick (2,3).
Flowers of Saint Patrick's Cabbage, Saxifraga spathularis
However, there is another plant that honours Ireland's patron saint, one much more deserving of the role. Saint Patrick's Cabbage is a saxifrage that bears the saints name both in its common name and its binomial moniker, Saxifraga spathularis. It is a distinctly Irish plant, being found only on the Island of Ireland as well as northwestern Spain and the mountains of north Portugal (4), where it is commonly called abelairiña. Its clusters of green leaves bear stalked pannicles of pretty white flowers that show numerous pink dots on the petals. S. spathularis has a wide tolerance to soil conditions and can be found in a variety of habitats, from exposed mountains to the shade of humid woodlands. In Ireland, it is distributed along the west coast, from Cork to Donegal, however its main base is in Kerry and West Cork. Records have been reported from Tipperary, Waterford and Wicklow, but pressure on hedge banks could be reducing its incidence (4).
Saint Patrick's Cabbage, Saxifraga spathularis
S. spathularis is closely related to another saxifrage species particular to Ireland and northern Iberia, Kidney Saxifrage (S. hirsuta). The two species can in fact hybridise to form S. x polita, which is commonly found growing in gardens as False Londonpride. Areas where S. spathularis and S. hirsuta grow in close proximity have seen an increase in the hybrid to the detriment of the populations of these two species (5).

  1. Edna Barth, 2001. Shamrocks, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of the St. Patrick's Day Symbols pp. 146-149
  2. Colgan, 1892. The Irish Naturalist 1 pp. 95-97
  3. Frazer, 1894. The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 4 pp. 132-135
  4. O'Mahony, 2009. Wildflowers of Cork City and County pp. 128-130
  5. O'Mahnoy, 1994. Irish Botanical News 4 pp. 17-19


  1. I found two plants of St Patrick's Cabbage this weekend, on a rock on the banks of the Avonbeg in Glenmalure, Co Wicklow

  2. My grandmother in Annagh, Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare was given a St. Patrick's Cabbage plant in a decorative flower pot for her wedding day 91 years ago. I'm delighted to say that the plant is still growing and thriving in the same pot since then, with the tender loving care of my father, her son, who's now 88 years old. Is this a record?