I always dislike the task of cutting the grass and particularly so at present. The sweet-smelling white and red clover flowers in my ‘lawn’ are currently buzzing with insect life. I take the time to shoo off these insects as I reluctantly cut the grass before it gets totally out of control.
Thankfully, these sturdy plants will grow again and I leave a ‘wild strip’ at the edges so there is a regular supply of nectar.
But clover is much more than a provider of nectar - this unassuming plant also enriches our soil and provides an emblem for all things Irish.
Clovers are very useful plants in grassland and are sometimes sown in with grass seed. Red clover has been sown in as a fodder crop for cattle since at least 1645 in England, and was similarly used in Ireland. Clover is used in this way because it helps to ‘fix’ nitrogen from the air which enriches the soil.
Clovers, like many plants in the pea family, bear small nodules on their roots. These are caused by bacteria which enter through the root-hairs.
These bacteria work with the plant to fix nitrogen from the air (that is capture it), eventually turning it into nitrates – a very valuable plant food.
Therefore clovers, vetches and alfalfa are often sown as crops. By ploughing them into the soil, farmers can improve the soil’s fertility. In addition to their nitrogen-fixing ability, their protein-rich seeds also make them valuable as fodder.
Red clover has a particularly plentiful supply of nectar. You can taste this if you bite and suck the base of one of its florets. White clover is also good for bees and other insects.
Clovers were also used in folk medicine with both red and white varieties being used as a cure for coughs.
Clover is most famous in myth and folklore as the ‘shamrock’. There is some confusion as to which plant is the definitive ‘real’ shamrock plant – whether it is springtime young shoots of white clover or lesser trefoil.
The origin of the term shamrock is also somewhat confusing. Its reputed use by St Patrick to explain the Trinity has made it famous as an emblem of Ireland. However, there is no mention of the shamrock in St Patrick’s own writings or in the early biographies of his life. Indeed, the first use of the term shamrock, or ‘seamróg’, in either the Irish or English language is in 1571.
The first mention of ‘wearing the green’ on St Patrick’s Day is in 1681 when it was said that the Irish wore ‘shamroges, 3-leaved grass’ in their hats.
The next significant mention of the shamrock dates to 1726 where it is noted that on the 17th of March ‘this plant is worn by the people in their hats ... it being a tradition that [St Patrick used it to] show the mystery of the Holy Trinity .. . when they wet their semar-oge, they often commit excess in liquor ... generally leading to debauchery’. Not much has changed it seems!
So which botanical plant is the true shamrock? Two surveys – carried out in 1893 and 1988 – seeking to find an answer to this question produced almost the same results.
Both surveys had similar methodologies in that they asked people from all over the island of Ireland to send in specimens of what they regarded as shamrock. The plants received were then allowed to grow to maturity and identified by botanists. These surveys showed that, for the vast majority of people, the shamrock is one of two species – the lesser trefoil or white clover.
In Irish folklore the four-leaved shamrock, ‘seamróg na gCeithre gCluas’, was considered to be extremely lucky. The possessor of this rarity would be blessed with luck and would be successful in all endeavours.
It also granted him or her a clear mind with an ability to see the truth and even the power of a second sight. These four-leaved shamrocks were believed to grow where an ass had foaled three times or where a cow or mare had been born.
In Scotland, similar beliefs existed about the supernatural powers granted by the four-leaved shamrock. And interestingly, outside Ireland and Scotland, it was the four-leaved clover that granted such magical abilities.
The ‘seamair óg’, the young clover, has long been an ancient symbol representing the fertility of the land of Ireland and appears in many myths in this way. The Book of Invasions tells of how a mythical race, the Firbolgs, were slaves in Greece before they came to Ireland. There they were compelled to bring bags of clay to bare rocks until the rocks became ‘plains under clover flowers’. According to another legend, St Brigid decided to stay in Kildare because ‘she saw before her the delightful plain covered in clover bloom, she determined to offer it to the Lord’. The word used for the plant in these stories owes its origin to ‘semair’ meaning clover.
The trefoil symbol appears numerous times in the Book of Kells as well featuring on many medieval icons, including the shrine of St Patrick’s tooth. However, there is no ancient visual representation of St Patrick carrying the shamrock, nor is it mentioned in writing. It first began to be used as a symbol of Irish nationalism in the eighteenth century, later gaining its status as the emblem of Ireland which it still retains today.
So how did the ‘shamrock’ come into existence and become linked with St Patrick? It seems there is no definitive answer to that question as it’s been lost in the mists of time. Nevertheless, it’s great that such a humble plant has emerged to become a symbol of all things Irish. The ubiquitous clover has a rich heritage and we can all have it in our gardens by leaving just a ‘wild strip’ for the insects.