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Irish Shamrocks and 4-Leaf Clovers

History Draws Clear Distinction Between the Two


Red clover's leaf (image) is tripartite. This is why St. Patrick could compare it to the Trinity.

Image of red clover's leaf.

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 Oxalis genus, such as the so-called "black shamrocks" and the wood sorrel family (e.g., 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, etc. 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....

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