March 17, 2016

Irish Shamrocks and 4-Leaf Clovers Or Is It 3-Leaf Clovers? History Of Shamrocks Draws Clear Distinction Between the Two

written by David Beaulieu

The thought of Irish shamrocks evokes visions of the green landscape of the Emerald Isle as surely as does St. Patrick's Day itself. But there is no real McCoy that can claim to be the authoritative version. If you have your heart set on making such an identification, you had better start looking for some 4-leaf clovers, because you'll need lots of luck! But ironically, the latter, themselves do not qualify, for reasons that history makes clear.

The term "shamrock" derives from the Irish word, seamrog, which translates as "little clover." Rather vague, considering that there are many kinds of clovers -- and even more plants that can pass as clovers to the layman. Consequently, in St. Patrick's Day celebrations a number of plants serve as Irish shamrocks. But identifying a particular plant as the one and only true Irish shamrock is a dubious practice, botanically speaking.

Even among the denizens of Ireland, itself, there is no consensus that dubs one particular group of plants as the true Irish shamrocks, as was reported in a 1988 survey. The survey, conducted at the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, Dublin, revealed that when the Irish wear the "shamrock," it can be any one of four plants. Three of the plants are clovers, while the fourth is a clover-like plant known as "medick." All four are in the Pea family:

1.Lesser trefoil, or hop clover (Trifolium dubium): 46%.
2.White clover (Trifolium repens): 35%.
3.Black medick (Medicago lupulina): 7%.
4.Red clover (Trifolium pratense): 4%.

Various members of the Wood Sorrel family (such as Oxalis acetosella) are also sold as shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day. These clover look-alikes are more easily cultivated as houseplants than is real clover, making them popular for interior decorating during St. Patrick's Day celebrations. But the wood sorrels are not even related to the four plants listed above. One would be quite justified at this point in asking, "What's the story here, how can such a diverse group of plants all be considered Irish shamrocks?" And there is, indeed, a story that accounts for the confusion ....

The Legend of St. Patrick and Irish Shamrocks

What medick, the wood sorrels and the true clovers all have in common is a trifoliate leaf structure, i.e., a compound leaf with three leaflets. The number 3, of course, is significant in the Christian religion, because of the doctrine of the Trinity. Irish legend has it that the missionary, Saint Patrick demonstrated the principle behind the Trinity using a shamrock, pointing to its three leaflets united by a common stalk. But there is no way of determining with certainty the exact plant referred to in the legend. This much we can say about Irish shamrocks, however. By definition, for a clover to represent the Trinity, it would have to bear 3 (and only 3) leaves. So for all the good luck they allegedly bring, 4-leaf clovers technically can't be considered shamrocks (not in the sense that St. Patrick made the latter famous, at least).

But the foregoing does explain the ease with which multiple "shamrock" representatives are accepted. A candidate's trifoliate leaf structure can override its family history, including geographical anomalies. For instance, some of the wood sorrels widely used in the U.S. as Irish shamrocks are of South American or Central American heritage, which hardly conjures up images of the grassy slopes of the Irish countryside!

Page 2 will look at the belief in 4-leaf clovers as lucky charms....

We have seen on Page 1 that the three leaves of the "shamrock" represent the three persons of the Trinity. But what of the notion that four leaf clovers bring good luck? Since the operative number here is four, the history behind these lucky charms clearly must be different from the Trinitarian tradition behind the shamrock. Indeed, it is widely believed (although I can't cite the ancient sources to back it up) that the significance invested in them pre-dates Christianity, going back to the pagan period, when the Celts attributed great potency to them.

Celtic dominance once extended across Ireland and much of Western Europe. It was the Druids (Celtic priests) who elevated four leaf clovers to the status of good-luck charms, allegedly potent against malevolent spirits. Their status as Celtic charms is the origin of the modern belief in their power to bestow good luck.

What do four leaf clovers mean, symbolically? Besides good luck, they are sometimes said to stand for faith, hope and love. But another interpretation is widely known via the following verse:

I'm looking over a four-leaf clover
That I overlooked before.
One leaf is sunshine, the second is rain,
Third is the roses that grow in the lane.
No need explaining the one remaining
Is somebody I adore.
I'm looking over a four-leaf clover
That I overlooked before.

The first literary reference to draw on the tradition of four leaf clovers as good-luck charms seems to have been made in 1620. In that year, according to the University of Illinois, Sir John Melton wrote, "If a man walking in the fields find any four-leaved grass, he shall in a small while after find some good thing." It is estimated that, on average, there are 10,000 three leaf clovers for every instance of a true four leaf clover.

Oxalis Deppei as a "Four Leaf Clover" Substitute?

Nowadays one can take the easy route to finding "four leaf clovers." Oxalis deppei is widely sold as the "good-luck plant," because it bears a leaf that always has four leaflets. However, as already noted, plants from the Oxalis genus are not true clovers, only clover look-alikes. Besides, when that fourth leaflet is automatic, how could it possibly hold its own with a true good-luck charm? Oxalis deppei strikes me as being suitable for gags only; there's not an ounce of romance in this phenomenon....

Considering the St. Patrick's Day traditions surrounding shamrocks and four leaf clovers, it is surprising that the clover is often looked upon as a weed, the killing of which we deem central to the care of our lawns. But it was not always so. Indeed, the University of Minnesota Extension Service points out that, until relatively recently, it was standard practice to include clover seed in lawn seed mixes:

"Until the 1950s, clover was included in lawn seed mixes as it was regarded as a prestigious lawn plant. It may be considered an attractive, low-maintenance ground cover that is soft to walk on, mows well and will fill in thin spots in a yard."

Landscaping enthusiasts believe in making their own luck through solid decision-making, rather than relying on Celtic charms and the proverbial "luck of the Irish." The information on Page 3 may not send you scurrying to find any four leaf clovers. But it may make you re-think your attitude toward your lawn....

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