What Is the Difference Between an Irish Shamrock and Four-Leaf Clover? (2024)

Both Irish shamrocks and four-leaf clovers evoke St. Patrick's Day and the green landscapes of the Emerald Isle, but only one is thought to be auspicious. Four-leaf clovers are said to bring good luck to those who find them, though the origins behind this belief are debated by historians, while three-leafed shamrocks just hold religious significance.

Four-leaf clovers are rare in a garden since most clovers just have a trifecta of leaves. So, if folklore holds and you want a bit of the "luck of the Irish," then go hunting for a four-leafed clover, not a shamrock.

What Is a Four-Leaf Clover?

Four-leaf clovers are a rarity, which is why if you find one, it is said you're lucky. They are a variation on the common three-leaf white clover (Trifolium repens). Researchers from the University of Georgia believe a combination of genes and environment makes them sprout an extra leaf. Exactly how rare they are is debatable. According to experts, the probability of finding one is 1 in 5,000 or 1 in 10,000.


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What Makes a Four-Leaf Clover Lucky?

Mostly, the four-leaf clover is not a separate species, just a genetic anomaly. That's why people feel so lucky when they stumble across one.

The origin of four-leaf clovers bringing good luck stems from ancient Celtic, or Druid, priests. They elevated the rarer four-leaf clovers to the status of good luck charms that warded against evil spirits.

Facts and Myths About Four-Leaf Clover

  • Fact: Each clover leaf represents faith, hope, luck, and love.
  • Myth: Eve plucked a four-leaf clover and carried it with her out of the Garden of Eden.
  • Fact: The term "luck of the Irish" is related to four-leaf clovers growing abundantly in Ireland.
  • Myth: Children in the Middle Ages thought carrying a four-leaf clover with them would allow them to see fairies.
  • Fact: The four-leaf clover genes can also produce more leaves, although that is even rarer. According to Guinness World Records, the most leaves on a clover stem (Trifolium repens L.) is 56, discovered in Japan in 2009.
  • Myth: Legend has it, Napoleon dodged a fatal bullet (literally) because he bent over to peek at a four-leaf clover.

What Is the Difference Between an Irish Shamrock and Four-Leaf Clover? (1)

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How to Find a Four-Leaf Clover

When looking for four-leaf clovers, it’s best to search in the spring before you mow your lawn for the first time (if you’re hunting in the backyard).

Locate a fluffy, dense patch of clovers and start checking around the edge of the area. You might be tempted to crouch down to get a closer look, but experts say you should take a bird’s eye view, peering around until you see a break in the pattern of triangular three-leaf clovers.

A four-leaf clover will instead make a square shape, though do note that the fourth leaf is often smaller than the other three. Plus, the lucky plant has a different-looking center.Let your eyes move quickly and don’t get caught up focusing on just a small portion of the patch.

It’s also much easier to spot four-leaf clovers on a cloudy day, since you can better discern the shapes and shadows. Once you find your lucky clover, keep looking—there are likely a few more hiding in the patch, as they grow in groups.

Historical Symbolism

In Ireland’s early aughts, Druids supposedly kept shamrocks at their sides to identify evil spirits about to cross their paths, so they could escape in time. During the Middle Ages, shamrocks were known as the floral emblem of Ireland, seen in a group with English roses, Scottish thistles and Welsh leeks.

Later on, they became symbolic of St. Patrick, with Irish folks donning the trefoil plant on their hats on his feast day starting in the early 18th century. The motif gained popularity in architecture, fashion, and more as a general symbol of Ireland in the decades that followed.

During The Troubles, the 30-year period when the country was divided over staying under British rule, the shamrock became tied to Irish-Catholic Nationalism, serving as an emblem of opposition to the supremacy of Protestants and their Unionist beliefs.

Four-leaf clovers remained more innocuous over the centuries, with early roots as Celtic charms fending off bad luck and a reputation for bringing mystical protection and auspicious energy to those that possess them that continues to this day.

Significance of Shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day

Shamrocks are tied to the Roman Catholic religion, and St. Patrick was Ireland's missionary, bishop, and patron saint.

Irish legend states that St. Patrick demonstrated the principle behind the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—using a shamrock, pointing to its three leaflets united by a common stalk. What is unclear is what plant he might have been holding. The Irish population latched onto this nugget of lore in the later centuries, and it was in the 1700s when the shamrock became a known symbol of St. Patrick and was used on his holiday.

The term shamrock comes from the Irish word "seamróg" or "seamair óg," which translates as "little clover."Historically, a shamrock looks like a clover with three leaves. Though, shamrocks could be medic, wood sorrels, or true clovers since they all have leaves ofthree leaflets.

Even among the Irish, there's no consensus about which plant is the authentic Irish shamrock, so it's tough to determine if they are the same as clover. Five plants lay claim to the designation of an Irish shamrock.

  • Lesser trefoil, or hop clover (Trifolium dubium)
  • White clover (Trifolium repens)
  • Red clover (Trifolium pratense)
  • Black medic or medick (Medicago lupulina)
  • Wood sorrel: (Oxalis acetosella)

If you don't have time for searching for four-leaf clovers, but want a "good luck plant," consider getting an Oxalis deppei, which is widely called the "good-luck plant" because it looks like a four-leaf clover. Or pick up some of its cousins in the Oxalis genus. With common names like purple shamrocks, (Oxalis triangularis) and wood sorrel (Oxalis Montana) are often sold as shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day.

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Is Clover Beneficial to Lawns?

Surprisingly, the lucky clover is often considered merely a common lawn weed to be killed. In fact, until recently, it was standard practice to include clover seed in lawn seed mixes; it was valued as a built-in fertilizer since it can fix atmospheric nitrogen. Clover snatches nitrogen out of the air, bringing this essential fertilizer down to earth using its nitrogen-fixing bacteria that lives in nodes along the roots.

A clover lawn provides a low-maintenance landscaping solution to many environmental concerns about grass lawns. Beneficial clover can also accomplish the following for your lawn:

  • Reduces excessive irrigation: Clover tolerates drought conditions better than grass because it has long roots that enable it to access water at deeper levels.
  • Looks better longer: It has a lasting green color and stands up better to heavy foot traffic than grass.
  • Improves tough soil: Clover toleratescompacted soilbetter than lawn grass, and its long tap roots also help to aerate your soil.
  • Minimizes pollution: Clover lawns reduce the pollution caused by herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. In addition, because they usually don't need to be mowed as often as grass lawns, there's less pollution caused by lawnmower emissions.
  • Attracts pollinators: Cloverputs out a mildly attractive flower that draws bees and other pollinators to your landscape.

Before you fully commit, experiment in a small area of your yard with white clover (Trifolium repens) or micro clover to see if a clover lawn is right for you.

What Is the Difference Between an Irish Shamrock and Four-Leaf Clover? (2024)
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