Shamrocks and Saint Patrick's Day

March 07, 2013

For some time, “the luck of the Irish” has been associated with March 17th and four-leaf clovers.  Most children have spent a sunny afternoon searching for that one special clover, perhaps to press between the pages of a favorite book and wish upon their whole lives through.  But it’s not an easy task, given that there are about 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every natural four-leaf one!

So just how did the four-leaf clover become synonymous with Irish luck?  Long before Christi­anity, four-leaf clovers were apparently considered charms by the Celts, whose tribes occupied much of Europe as well as Ireland.  The Celtic priests, or Druids, declared the four-leaf clover to be strong against dangerous spirits.  These days, the leaves of a four-leaf clover are often said to stand for faith, hope, love and luck!

So what’s the difference between a clover and a shamrock?  Well, it’s the three-leaved “shamrock,” not “clover,” that’s an unofficial, though widely used, emblem of Ireland … and of Boston, Massa­chusetts!  But when you learn that Irish seamróg just means ‘young clover,” the difference begins to seem just a choice of words.

In an 1893 paper, Irish botanist Nathaniel Colgan decided on the “true” shamrock, after growing samples sent to him from many Irish counties, especially those where Gaelic was still lively.  Based on the majority of specimens, he picked Trifolium repens, the white or Dutch clover.  (The Latinmeans ‘creeping three-leaf’.)  However, that’s just one of several different plants now sold as “shamrocks”—and a lot of them grow better indoors than Colgan’s choice does.

Of course, you don’t have to be Irish to kick up your heels on St. Patrick’s Day, and you don’t need a four-leaf clover to be lucky.  So please accept my wishes for good luck and a great day!