by Kathy Warnes
I’ll seek a four-leaved shamrock in all thy fairy dells,
And if I find the charmed leaves, oh, how I’ll weave my spells!
Samuel Lover – Irish Painter and Novelist- The Four Leaved Shamrock
Time has transformed the Irish word “seamrog” which means summer plant into the word shamrock. Time has not much transformed the places where shamrocks grow, which include throughout the Northern Hemisphere, South America, Africa, and at high altitudes in the tropics. They thrive in Spain and France as well as Ireland and Great Britain. Green shamrocks and the Emerald Isle are married in people’s perceptions, but there are also red, purple, and orange shamrocks.
Red shamrocks grow across all Celtic regions from Ireland to the British Isles, along the regions of Turkey and further on to Brittany. Wild shamrocks are also called wood sorrels and usually can be found in lush woodlands and rocky places. Their blossoms have five violet colored petals. Some of the wood sorrels that are used as Irish Shamrocks in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States come from South and Central America.
The Odyssey and Identity Crisis of the Shamrock
Historians and botanists as well as the Irish debate the physical and historical characteristics of the shamrock. To the Druids, the wood sorrel symbolized joy and maternal tenderness. Irish legend has it that the Druids in Ireland considered the shamrock a sacred plant because its leaves created a triad or a design of three leaves. The Celts considered three a mystical number.
In the fifth century, continuing the shamrock mystique and mythology, St. Patrick used the shamrock to illustrate an important Christian doctrine as he travelled around Ireland. He told people that the three leaves of the shamrock illustrated the Trinity-the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
During the late 1700s, the English monarchy looked askance at Irish regiments wearing shamrocks and considered them to be rebellious. Some Irish people responded by wearing a small red and green cross instead, which caused the shamrock to be associated with the Christian cross.
In the Nineteenth Century, the Irish began to use the shamrock as a symbol of rebellion against the English and the symbol of Irish identity. The shamrock became such a strong symbol of Irish rebellion and identity that anyone wearing one risked death by a British noose. The Irish, who immigrated a million strong to the United States in the potato famine years of 1845-1850 and in the years after, took the tradition of the shamrock and St. Patrick’s Day with them. Over the next several decades, the tradition of St. Patrick’s Day parades and shamrocks became part of the Irish American and then American culture.
By 1904, conditions in England had improved for both the shamrock and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. The Irish flag flew from several English public buildings on St. Patrick’s Day, Irish churches held special celebrations, and the shamrocks in one form or another were everywhere. Irish troops at the various garrisons were given a day’s leave. Following the precedent of Queen Victoria, Queen Alexandra sent the battalion of Irish guards on duty at the Tower of London a large number of shamrocks which were distributed to the men at parade. In his book The Flora of County Dublin, botanist and author Nathaniel Colgan says that in 1904, people in Ireland ate the shamrock during famines.
Botanists Weigh In on the White Clover and True Shamrock Debate
Over the centuries the Irish, English, and botanists of other ethnicities have debated and disputed which plant rightfully should bear the name of shamrock. In 1988, botanist Dr. Charles Nelson conducted a shamrock survey of the Irish people, asking them to collect what they thought were shamrocks and send them to him. He asked them “Which is the true shamrock?” and published the results of his survey in his book Shamrock: Botany and History of An Irish Myth.
Forty-six percent of the people answered that the true shamrock was the trifolium dubium or yellow trefoil, or yellow suckling.
Thirty five percent said that the white clover was the true shamrock.
Seven percent said that the black medick was the true shamrock.
Five percent said that the wood sorrel was the true shamrock.
Four percent said that the red clover was the true shamrock.
According to Dr. Nelson, the yellow trefoil, found throughout the British Isles, was the most common in his survey. The top five species of shamrock all can be found in northern Europe and only the trefoil can strictly be called clover. The trefoil is an annual which grows to be about 10 inches tall and is sold in seed packets. The white clover commonly grows on lawns as a wildflower and the four leaf clover which is considered to be a lucky charm, is a result of a plant mutation. Researchers have found that a specific gene in clovers turn ordinary three leaf clovers into four leaf clovers.
The white clover, Trifolium Repens, which has three leaves is the traditional kind of clover that is identified as a shamrock. Shamrocks that have four leaves are rare, and experts claim that there are about 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every four-leaf clover. Botanists have investigated the contributions of white clover to lawns and discovered that it provides nitrogen to turf grass, reduces the water needs of a lawn, and converts sterile soil into biologically active soil with beneficial organisms working above and below the surface. Clover leaves naturally produce anthocyanins, which are believed to have some health benefits including anti-inflammatory effects.
James Armitage of the Royal Horticultural Society in Wisley, United Kingdom, points out that the shamrock has a modest appearance, is slightly weedy and grows in grassy areas and open ground. He said that the shamrock is known from artwork and” not from exactly botanical representation, so to fix a species to it is quite difficult.”
No matter how its species is fixed, the multi cultural seamrog has become an essential part of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations all around the world.
Barth, Edna. Shamrock, Harps, and Shillelaghs: The Story of the St. Patrick’s Day Symbols. Sandpiper, 2001.
Berendes, Mary. St. Patrick’s Day Shamrocks. Child’s World, 1999.
Nash, David, Parnell, John, Reynolds, Sylvia. The Flora of County Dublin. Dublin Naturalist Field Club, 1998.
Nelson, C.N. Shamrock: Botany and History of An Irish Myth. Boethius Press, 1991.