"I am the grammarian about whom your mother warned you."
Sure and begorrah, the shamrock is one of the best-known symbols of Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day. But what’s the difference between clover and shamrocks? Well first off, the four-leafed clover has, well, four leaves. Shamrocks by definition have three.
The shamrock can however be any of a number of a variety of clovers. Common in my area is the red clover which is often planted as ground cover and for bees to make honey. It also is an economical way to add nitrogen to the soil. Clover has the ability to take the nitrogen out of the air and ‘fix’ it in nodules on the roots, thereby amending the soil. There’s even an Oregon Clover Commission which sells clover seeds. Of course, if you’ve ever tried to eradicate the stuff from your yard, you’re probably wondering why anyone would plant this thing on purpose.
Usually white clover, or Trifolium repens, is what we mean when we say ‘shamrock.’ I’m sure most of you recognize the flowers, this stuff grows EVERYWHERE.
Here’s a shot of the crimson clover that is grown in my area. It’s breathtaking when it’s at peak and the fields turn this bright red. This picture was taken a little late in the season so the color is already fading.
However, even in Ireland there is no consensus on which plant is the definitive ‘shamrock.’ The term has become so broad that even unrelated but similar-looking Oxalis is sold as “shamrocks” around St. Patrick’s Day. I have one, which is the grandchild of a plant of a co-worker’s grandmother. They grown as corms (like bulbs) and will propagate themselves quite readily, although mine has been taking many years to bush out. This is about the best it’s looked in the five years I’ve had it.
As you can see, the flowers of the Oxalis are quite different from clover flowers and are not a true clover.
The word shamrock comes from the Irish seamrog, (diminutive form of seamair). But what does this all have to do with St. Patrick? The story goes that Patrick used the the 3-leaved plant to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost as one, with three leaves joined on one stem, while Christianizing the island. But this is probably not true. The earliest this is mentioned is in 1726, whereas St. Patrick lived in the sixth century. It’s a cute story, but likely nothing more than a myth, and a relatively recent one at that. Notwithstanding, here is the text of a letter a former co-worker passed out just before St. Patrick’s Day a few years ago:
My parents sent me a large sprig of shamrock from Ireland yesterday for St. Patrick’s Day. An old Irish custom which travelled down to us through the centuries entails a person, who is 100% Irish, giving a piece of shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day to another person. This act bestows on the recipient the power to make a special wish that will come through within the next 12 months, before the next St. Patrick’s Day comes around.
Please remove the shamrock from this page (there was a piece attached) place it in the palm of your right hand, close your eyes and make your special wish. Remember St. Patrick’s Day is the only day you can do this. Immediately after making your wish, write it down on a piece of paper and insert it, with the shamrock, into an envelope and seal it. When your wish does come through, open up the envelope again, take the shamrock out and bury it in the soil of your garden. This represents the fact that the shamrock has met its purpose in life and now needs to be placed back from where it came – Mother Earth.
This is a genuine Irish tradition, specific to the countryside and its people.
He had passed these out as a ‘thank you’ for helping him get settled in his new job and making him feel welcome. I dutifully followed directions, but whatever I wished never came true. Ah well, it was a lovely thought.
The four-leaf clover is simply a random, rare variation on the three-leaf. These are supposed to be especially lucky to find, particularly if you happen upon them while not actually looking for them. Interestingly, they can have MORE than four leaves as well. The most bizarre had 56!