by Kathy Woolsey
The days of my youth were spent happily in the backyard playing croquet and looking for four leaf clovers. My cousin Joanne and I spent hours close to the ground among the white clover flowers seeking out the prized four leaf clover surrounded the many three leaf clovers.
We would make daisy chains out of the flowers for necklaces and headbands. The coveted four leaf clovers were often pressed into Bibles and other books to show off for later. Our ability to find four leaf clovers impressed many other children and adults. Back then ‘White Dutch’ clover was planted with grass seed to help improve the soil. Like all legumes, clover had nitrogen fixing bacteria in its roots therefore it could help feed the grass. ‘Dutch Clover’, Trifolium repens only grows about 6 inches tall and makes a great cool season ground cover. Many types of native bees and honey bees sip nectar from the flowers of clover. I was shocked to learn that ‘White Dutch’ Clover is often considered a weed in lawns and people buy herbicides to kill it. I don't like certain weeds in my lawn either, but I always avoid killing the Clover because even to this day I will stop and look for a few four-leaf clovers.
But how did the Clover become a symbol for St. Patrick and Christian Ireland?
There are 2 thing most folks know about St. Patrick: He went to Ireland as a missionary and used the 3 leaf clover the teach about the Trinity and he drove the snakes out of Ireland.
Well let’s clear up this snake myth right away. There were no snakes in Ireland. Some islands like Iceland, New Zealand and Ireland have not had these reptiles since before the last ice age. Myth Busted!
As for the clover myth, there is a good possibility it may be true. Part of the problem is that St. Patrick lived a very, very long time ago, March 17 in 493 is generally believed to be the date of his death. There are only two documents believed to have been written by him These are the “Declaration” and the “Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus”. In the “Declaration” he gives the story of his life. There is no mention of clovers, shamrocks or snakes in either document.
Shamrock comes from Irish seamróg, which means small clover. There are many members of the Clover or Trifolium family in Europe. Trifolium dubium, with yellow flowers and Trifolium repens, with white flowers are common plants in Ireland and would have been a handy visual aid for St.Patrick or any Christian missionary. The first time St.Patrick was depicted holding a shamrock was in 1675 on a coin call the St. Patrick's Copper. On the coin St. Patrick is dressed as a bishop and holding a clover and preaching to a crowd. Was the clover put on the coin to symbolize the Trinity or Ireland?
But is the clover of my childhood the real shamrock? Two recent surveys were conducted in Ireland asking people to identify the shamrock. More than half of the people call the yellow flowering Trifolium dubium the shamrock, about 1/3 said the ‘White Dutch’ was the shamrock. Less than 10% identified Trifolium pratense red clover or Medicago lupulina Black Medick as Shamrocks. Oxalis acetosella the Wood Sorrel was identified by less than 3% as the shamrock. Oddly enough in America Oxalis is often sold at garden centers as “Shamrocks” even though most Irish would disagree. Black Medick is a common lawn and roadside weed and more abundant in the south than ‘White Dutch’ or the common red clover. Both ‘White Dutch’ and Black Medick bloom during the month of March.
I think there was a good possibility that St. Patrick or other Christian Missionaries could have used a 3 leaf clover to explain the Trinity. So why are the 4 leaf clovers lucky? Perhaps it is because they are rare, but to me they represent the Cross.