If you’re up on your botanical pop culture, you know better than to sport a four-leaf clover on St. Patrick’s Day.
And if you’re not, well, you’re in the majority. Most of us, including current and past presidents, have confused our four-leaf clovers and shamrocks. The one is no substitution for the other, however, and it’s time to set the facts straight. After all, the Irish are not to be trifled with.
There’s wide agreement that a shamrock is a type of clover, according to an article on the subject by BBC News, though not everyone agrees on exactly which species of trifolium it is.
What’s not debatable, however, is the number of leaves it has: a shamrock properly has three. The shamrock became a symbol of Ireland because St. Patrick is said to have used clover as a botanical object lesson. Its three leaves represented the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who, like the Holy Trinity, were separate parts of a whole.
A four-leaf clover, then, is a genetic mutation and extremely rare. It’s commonly estimated that one out of every 10,000 clover has four leaves. Finding one would take hours of searching — or a stroke of luck.
And the shamrock houseplant you received as a St. Patrick’s Day gift? That’s wood sorrel. It has three leaves, but it is not clover and thus, not a true shamrock. But then, it would be odd to give someone a pot of common white clover.
So what’s the difference between a shamrock and four-leaf clover if not botanical? Here’s what it comes down to: A shamrock is a symbol of Ireland and a four-leaf clover is a symbol of good luck.
So if you’re going to wear a four-leaf clover on St. Patrick’s Day, you’d better bring your lucky rabbit’s foot and hope an angry leprechaun doesn’t beat you with his harp.