A shamrock by any other name

Published 10:18 pm Monday, March 16, 2020

By Biff and Susan Andrews

“With a little love and luck we will get by,” says the old Jimmy Buffet song.

Sage advice, considering current events. Thank goodness it’s St. Patrick’s Day! A little more love and luck just in time. Do be sure, darlin’, to be share’n the love through your elbow. No canoodlin’!


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Everybody is Irish today. So, while you’re cooking up your corned beef, cabbage and potatoes and chilling your Guinness (hope you were lucky at your local grocery) let’s talk about shamrocks.

Shamrock comes from the Irish word “seamrog” that loosely translates to “little clover” and is the symbol of Ireland. There are many types of clover, and it seems that for the Irish not just any clover will do. It turns out that in 1988 there was a survey done by the National Botanical Garden of Dublin. This survey revealed that when the Irish wear shamrocks, it can be any one of four plants, all in the pea family. Three are true clover, and one is a clover-like plant called “Medick.” Of those who participated in the survey, here’s what was found to be popular among the Irish.

Lesser trefoil, or hop clover (Trifolium dubnium): 46 percent

White clover (Trifolium repens): 35 percent

Black medick (Medicago lupins): 7 percent

Red clover (Trifolium partense): 4 percent

But not all shamrocks are alike. You see a lot of potted Oxalis house plants being sold in stores as shamrocks. Posers! But that’s OK; we’re all Irish today. Oxalis is a type of wood sorrel not related to Trifolium.

So now we get to the luck part. Legend has it that St. Patrick used the symbol of the shamrock as a teaching aid to illustrate the Trinity. In that regard, a true shamrock would only have three leaves; three parts attached to a main stem, thus Trifolium. No luck there, just faith.

The ancient priests of the Celts (Druids) believed a four-leaf clover was a lucky charm. I don’t know much about the ancient Celts, but I’m pretty sure Christian symbolism wasn’t their strong suit. A four-leaf clover is an anomaly in the clover world; that is why we feel lucky to find one.

If ever there was a time to show our love, consider our luck — whether it’s the luck of the Irish or not — and tap into our faith, now seems to be an appropriate time.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from the Andrews family!

Erin Go Bragh!


Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at suebiff22@gmail.com.