The Mystery of the Shamrock

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20170317AToday, March 17, is St. Patrick’s Day, celebrated wherever in the world the Irish have settled… that is to say just about everywhere. Like many North Americans, I have Irish ancestors… and I’m far from alone. About 10% of Americans and 15% of Canadians are of Irish origin.

That shamrock is the symbol of the Irish people is very well known and it’s also the official emblem of Ireland, but do you know where this tradition comes from?

Saint Patrick Plucked a Clover Leaf…

Saint Patrick during Boston’s traditional Saint-Patrick Day’s parade. Photo: Laura Siegert, Wikimedia Commons

Saint Patrick is an almost mythical historical figure. Although he probably really did exist, there are so many stories and legends about him that historians have had difficulty determining what really happened. Some even suggest there were two Patricks and that their stories have become intertwined!

Here’s a quick sketch of what might have been Saint Patrick’s life.

Born in Roman Britain around 385 AD, he was reportedly abducted by Irish pirates at the age of 16, then lived as a slave in Ireland for 6 years. It was during this period that he became a devout Christian.

Escaping from his captors, he returned to his family, studied and became a priest. In 432, Pope Celestine, learning he spoke Irish, sent him to Ireland to evangelize the hitherto-pagan Irish people, without much success at first. However, during an impromptu sermon at Cashel Rock, he bent over and plucked a leaf with three leaflets, explaining that it represented the Holy Trinity. That he should so readily find the Holy Trinity in a common weed impressed the pagan Irish and they began to convert to Christianity.

Patrick became the first bishop of Ireland and died on March 17, 461 (maybe!), and the trifoliate plant, which the Irish call shamrock (seamróg), became the very symbol of Ireland.

But Which Plant?

One of the potential shamrocks: lesser trefoil (Trifolium dubium). Photo: Kenraiz, Wikimedia Commons

Therein lies the mystery. What leaf did Saint Patrick pick?

The word shamrock can mean any plant with 3 leaflets. Over the years, experts have suggested that the true Irish shamrock could be lesser trefoil (Trifolium dubium), white clover (T. repens), red clover (T. pratense) or alfalfa (Medicago lupulina), all of which are in the Fabaceae family, or even wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), from an entirely different family. All five are common in Ireland and it fact, throughout much of the northern hemisphere.

As for the Irish themselves, a survey conducted in 1988 showed that about 45% consider lesser trefoil (T. dubium) to be the true shamrock while one third prefer white clover (T. trifolium)… and all the others have their share of votes as well. So, no consensus there either.

Your Own Shamrock

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White clover (Trifolium repens). Photo: Ranko, Wikimedia Commons

If you find clover plants with small green leaves on sale around St. Patrick’s Day, a tradition in many countries, the plant sold is inevitably white clover (T. repens), the same clover that grows in so many lawns. It’s easy enough to grow from seed in a florist’s greenhouse, but this cold-climate plant is usually short-lived when grown in a pot and is best planted outdoors if you want to see it thrive.

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False shamrock (Oxalis triangularis)

There is also the false shamrock or purple shamrock (Oxalis triangularis, formerly O. regnellii), True enough, there is nothing truly Irish about this South American plant, but if you want to grow it and claim it as a shamrock, go for it. At least it does makes a good, long-lived houseplant.


It is said that everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. So wear the green… and show off your shamrock plant, whatever it is!20170317A