Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
In honor of St. Patrick's Day, it seems appropriate to discuss what many associate with him, the shamrock. Many also wrongly assume that the shamrock is the official symbol of Ireland as well. In fact, the Celtic harp is the official symbol. But the shamrock does hold special meaning for Ireland, dating back to the days of the ancient Druids.
The Druids believed that the shamrock held special powers to combat evil spirits. They considered the shamrock sacred because of its three heart shaped leaves, representing the Triple Goddess of Celtic mythology, who in turn represented the Three Mothers, the origins of the three ancient Celtic tribes. Other cultures attach significance to the shamrock as well–ancient Iranians also revered the number three and considered the shamrock, or "shamrakh" a symbol for the "Sacred Threes".
According to popular legend, St. Patrick used the shamrock to describe the concept of the Holy Trinity to Druid high priests. Seeing as the shamrock was already a sacred plant to the Druids, it was probably no accident that St. Patrick chose this plant to illustrate the abstract Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
The legend also says St. Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland and shamrocks grew over the land to prevent snakes from returning. Some argue that actual snakes never inhabited Ireland, but the presence of snakes in the legend actually represents pagan beliefs of the Druids, which St. Patrick did drive out of Ireland in favor of Christianity.
The shamrock gained strength as a symbol of the Irish people, particularly during the reign of Queen Victoria, and the Irish rebellion to her oppressive rule. She outlawed wearing the shamrock on military uniforms, punishable by death. The phrase "wearing o' the green" developed in reference to those brave enough to wear the shamrock despite the Queen's declaration. The shamrock grew as a symbol of national pride, identity and strength despite adversity.
Many plants have been referred to as "shamrocks", illustrating why common names can be a problem where identifying plants are concerned. What species is the "true" shamrock? The name shamrock comes from the Irish word "seamrog" meaning "little clover". This leaves a multitude of possibilities for the true identity of the shamrock. The fact is there is no one true shamrock. Traditional shamrocks may be one of at least four species, all in the pea family: lesser trefoil, or hop clover (Trifolium dubium), white clover (Trifolium repens), black medick (Medicago lupulina), or red clover (Trifolium pratense). Florists and other retailers will often sell members of the wood sorrel family (Oxalis) as "Irish Shamrocks", though they are no relation to the four species mentioned above.
The belief in a four-leaf clover bringing good luck appears to have originated with the Druids. For them, the four-leaf clover had particularly potent energy to combat evil spirits. This evolved over time into the modern belief of the four-leaf clover bestowing good luck on the person that finds one. Some say the four leaves stand for faith, hope, love and luck.
There is some debate on the biological origin of the four-leaf clover. Reasonable hypotheses have been proposed for both a recessive gene occurring at a low frequency in clover populations, and for environmental factors mutating leaf cells to produce the extra leaf. There have been more than four leaves reported on a single clover. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the record number is eighteen leaves on a single clover stem.
The frequency of four-leaf clovers has been estimated at one in ten thousand clovers. Most people are happy to have found one four-leaf clover given these odds. George Kaminski holds the Guinness world record for finding the most four-leaf clovers–as of St. Patrick's Day 2005, he had collected 72,927 four-leaf clovers since 1995 as an inmate in various Pennsylvania prisons. I guess when you have the time, even impossible odds become possible!