It is shamrocks that are associated with St Patrick’s Day and a four-leaf clover, regardless of colour 🙂 , is not the same thing as a shamrock. But it’s lucky! Superstition holds that the clover’s four leaves represent faith, hope, love and luck.
The shamrock is associated with Ireland because Saint Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, is said to have used the plant as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity of the father, the son and the holy spirit.
A shamrock is a young spring of white clover that grows during winter time. The word shamrock itself actually comes from the Irish word ‘Seamrog’ meaning ‘little clover’ or ‘young clover’.
A four-leaf clover meanwhile is meant to represent God’s Grace and is lucky because it is so difficult to find. The chance of finding a single four-leaf clover is about one in 10,000. The four-leaf clover is said to have been carried out of the Garden of Eden by Eve.
The four-leaf clover is the product of a genetic mutation in the regular white clover plant, but that hasn’t stopped humankind from assigning meaning to their unique shape. The 15th century politician and author John Melton even wrote, “If a man walking in the fields find any four-leaved grass, he shall in a small while after find some good thing.” In other words, the four-leaf clover is quite the multi-purpose charm for good fortune.
But whatever you do, don’t mix up your average four-leaf clover with a shamrock, a.k.a. a three-leaf clover. Only the shamrock is associated with St. Patrick’s Day.
The Irish had imbued the shamrock with meaning long before St. Patrick came along. Three-leaf clovers featured prominently in ancient Celtic rituals and folklore (triads and the number three were considered spiritually significant back then, too). This is why the shamrock appears outside of St. Patrick’s Day decorations — like the four-leaf clover, it has a longstanding reputation as a pretty general source of luck.
The clover brings good luck and protects against evil. Anyone wearing a clover will be able to see fairies if they are around. If you pass your clover on to someone else, your luck will double.
There are over 300 different species of clover, but the type most associated with the rare fourth lucky leaf is the widespread white clover (so named because of the fluffy, delicious-looking white blossoms).
Research from the University of Georgia, published in 2010, finally pieced together the genetic puzzle of the multi-leaved clover. But even that research left a few mysteries. Two separate experiments conducted in summer and winter of the same year found the gene involved in creating a four-leaf clover — but the two experiments mapped it to two different places in the genome, which is impossible. The clover seems to have done everything possible to make its genome inscrutable.
So to this day, it’s still a mystery where exactly this four-leaf clover gene is actually located, and how it really works. What we do know is that it’s a genetic trait, like most other things in a plant.
Native on three continents, the white clover’s genome tells the story of a plant that geography tried, and failed, to split into multiple species. The white clover is an allotetraploid. Best to work backward on that one. -Ploid means chromosome, and -tetra means four. That means the white clover has double the amount of chromosomes as humans, mangoes, pill bugs, and most other organisms. This brings us to the allo- prefix, which means that each pair of the white clover’s chromosomes comes from a different species!
When it was proliferating over the globe, the clover started to split into multiple species, but then they doubled back and started breeding again. And instead of recombining into diploid chromosomes, the clover kept both pairs. Maize and sorghum had some awkward allotetraploid years when they first started splitting about 20 million years ago (both now have just two chromosomes). Pretty exciting family life for a boring ole ground cover, right?
On top of that, white clover don’t have the tidiest genealogies. The plants are promiscuous outbreeders. In fact, they are pretty much incapable of breeding with themselves (as many plants do). Combined with the quadruple chromosomes, the white clover’s sex life means that it is incredibly difficult to figure out which genes came from which parent. This means inheritance studies — which figure out if a gene’s expression is due to nature over nurture — are all but impossible.
And clovers can grow many more than four leaves. The most leaves on a clover stem (Trifolium repens L.) is 56 and was discovered by Shigeo Obara of Hanamaki City, Iwate, Japan, on 10 May 2009 (Guinness record). That’s the effect of getting rid of one of the genes that normally prevents too many leaves on a clover. If it gets mutated or stops working, the clover starts making multiple leaves.
Depending on how much of the other Guinness you have today, who knows how many leaves you’ll find on a clover!
Happy St Patrick’s Day!