The custom of wearing a shamrock on St Patrick’s Day dates back to the 17th or possibly 18th century.
Irish legend tells that the original three leaves were used by St Patrick to represent the holy trinity, and the fourth or lucky leaf is God’s grace – very suitable for a Catholic country such as Ireland. The shamrock can naturally have four or even five leaves, the extra ones being smaller than the ‘official’ three.
However, there is some disagreement whether the annual, wild growing Trifolium dubium is the authentic shamrock, or whether the ‘real’ four leaf clover is the perennial white flowered clover Trifolium repens.
White clover is probably not the traditional four leaved clover. The Irish shamrock is more likely to be Trifolium dubium, also known as lesser yellow trefoil. An annual plant germinating in the spring, changes in the weather conditions can affect whether it is growing in time to be picked for St Patricks Day. This may be why Trifolium repens has been often replaced it; as a perennial and semi-evergreen, it is more likely to have leaves ready for picking on March 17th. Trifolium dubium can also be a bit of a weed, as it will cheerfully grow not just in your lawn but in your flower borders too.
For gardeners, a shamrock or clover is a lucky plant to have as it is a member of the leguminous family, meaning that it can help with keeping Nitrogen, one of the three major nutrients, in the soil. Nitrogen is essential in the formation of chlorophyll in the leaves and stems, which is what makes them green and helps the plant to photosynthesise. Shamrock and other leguminous plants such as sweet peas and runner beans have nodules on their roots which contain bacteria. These bacteria have a clever knack of ‘fixing’ the nitrogen in the soil making it easily available and accessible to the surrounding plants.
If you’d like your own, home grown shamrock, which may be four leaved, take a look at your lawn – chances are you’ll find some clover growing in it. If not, it’s simple enough to buy seeds or a plan. Red clover (Trifolium pratense) in particular appears in many of the ‘wildflower’ mixes; and will work in a border, a wildflower meadow or as an extra plant in your main lawn. Why not add clover along with daisies and buttercups to add a bit of variety to your grass and improve your garden’s ecosystem?
Clover flowers are sweet with nectar and are much loved by bees and butterflies, so have a further benefit of encouraging these beneficial insects into your garden. They also make one of the more readily available honeys, with a light floral taste. If you want to eat clover flowers yourself, or make herb tea or tisane from them, be sure to use totally fresh or fully dried petals. Like many plants all clovers have a nasty and a nice side. Mouldy clover petals were used to develop blood thinning medication…after they’d killed some cows who’d eaten them…
The photograph of Trifolium purpurea quadrifolium at the top – a four leaved purple clover – chosen for its foliage which complemented the flowers in this planting scheme, has been perversely three-leaved in this client’s garden!
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