Curious Questions: Why are four-leaf clovers lucky?

Ian Morton investigates the myths and legends linked to Ireland's favourite plant.

Firstly, we have the Irish question. No, not that one, this one: what is shamrock and what is clover? The sentimental claim of the Emerald Isle to the exclusivity of shamrock was never better expressed than in the 1914 song A Little Bit of Heaven by American songwriter J. Keirn Brennan, which features the lines:
So they sprinkled it with stardust, Just to make the shamrocks grow,’Tis the only place you’ll find them, No matter where you go.

Pure blarney. Shamrock and clover are botanically the same and there are 245 recognised species worldwide. To my mind, if there’s a collective noun for clover, it’s a complexity.

Shamrock derives from seamair, from the old Irish semar — meaning clover — and og, meaning small or young. The first published reference to it in English can be found in John Gerard’s Herball of 1597, which noted that ‘meadow trefoils are called Shamrockes’.

pattern of clover leaves in different shades of green

Yet who would wish to deny the Irish their national plant? For legend has it that St Patrick — the 5th-century Romano-British missionary that weaned the land away from Celtic polytheism — used clover’s three-leaf configuration to illustrate the Christian trinity, of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

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Usefully, the number three was already significant in the pagan orthodoxy and in the triumvirate of senior Greek and Roman goddesses. Equally as potent, if not more so, was the number four — the seasons, the ancient elements and the points of the compass — with a rare four-leaf clover proclaiming good fortune, as well as playing a part in druid rituals.

For early Christians, it represented the holy cross and allowed the perception of evil. They believed Eve carried a four-leafed clover with her when she was thrown out of Eden to remind her of paradise lost.

In medieval times, a single woman who put one in her shoe would marry the first wealthy and eligible man she met. The same charm pinned over her door would ensnare the first unmarried man to pass through.

Strewn in the path of a rural bride, clover gave her protection and the promise of a successful marriage. It provided fodder and silage, enriched poor soil and banished snakes.

Fields of clover were believed to attract fairies and wearing a four-leafed clover was said to render them visible. An ointment made from a four-leafed clover or an amulet containing the lucky leaf, together with seven grains of wheat, gave second sight.

A rhyme declared one leaf for fame, one for wealth, one for a faithful love and one for glorious health. A maiden finding a two-leafed stem held the promise of a lover and a four-leafed helped a chap avoid military service, protected against madness, enhanced his psychic powers and promised wealth.

Two people chewing a four-leafed clover together were bound to fall in love and anyone finding a five-leafed one was assured of exceptional powers and great fortune.

Some species found abroad generate large numbers of leaves on one stem. Guinness World Records credits Japanese enthusiast Shigeo Obara of Hanamaki City with 56 — a sure candidate to win the Takarakuji lottery, perhaps.

Those of us content to find only one lucky four-leaf clover may be nonplussed by another Guinness record, registered by 10-year-old Katie Borka of Spotsylvania, Virginia, who found 166 in the space of one hour; a likely US Powerball winner, perhaps.

Red Meadow Clover

Our native white clover, Trifolium repens, and red clover, Trifolium pratense, widely planted in British fields and carried to other continents by colonisation, are but two in the global list of members of the Fabaceae or pea family. Here, we may also see the so-called Swedish clover (T. hybridum), which has naturalised since arriving in the early 19th century, the straggling meadow or zigzag clover with rose-purple bloom (T. medium), the hairy and feathery hare’s-foot (T. arvense), the strawberry clover (T. fragiferum), the hop clover (T. campestre) and the very similar T. dubium, which likes dry soil and may be found on roadsides. Few folk perceive them.

Elsewhere in the world, other clover species have garnered a variety of colloquial and rather bewildering names, such as foothill, forest, subterranean, tomcat, cow, buffalo, bull, knotted, notchleaf, bearded, cup, clammy, fewflower, sulphur, whitetip, woollyhead and thimble. Others are known by their location — Persian, Egyptian, Hungarian, Chilean and Santa Cruz.

English folk names included honeystalker or honeysuckle, from the old practice by rural children of sucking the flowers to taste the nectar produced within their 30 to 60 florets.

Preferred by bees and especially bumblebees, white clover deterred witches and, when rubbed on weapons before battle, was thought to render them infallible. It also carried considerable folk value in Wales, where it warded off evil spirits, deflected madness when gathered in a gloved hand and epitomised beauty — in Arthurian legend, Princess Olwen left a trail of white clover wherever she went.

Red clover is one of the world’s oldest crops — the Greeks and Romans fed it to cattle and warhorses. It had great medicinal value, too. Pliny recommended it for poisonous bites and the ancient Chinese prescription for whooping cough survived into medieval Europe and crossed the Atlantic with Dutch settlers.

Traditionally, it served as a diuretic, expectorant, blood purifier, antibiotic, appetite suppressant, relaxant and a treatment for cancer, heart and lung problems. Infused in warm water, it was an aphrodisiac.

Freckles were banished from a face washed with red clover in dawn dew and, added to bath water, it aided financial decisions. Few such nostrums are credible, but modern analysis has identified vitamins B and C, plus phytoestrogens, judged to be relevant in treating menopausal and prostate problems.

Clover miscellanea

Close up of Celtic Football Club football kit

• Of indeterminate origin and popular with rugby clubs and the licentious soldiery of two world wars, the bawdy song relating to a romp Roll Me Over in the Clover couldn’t offer greater contrast to Brennan’s ballad and the dozen or so other sentimental songs involving the plant

• The clover-leaf symbol used for the clubs suit in English-language playing cards originates from the French trèfle (clover), adopted in 1480. In Italian, the suit is fiori (flower) and in German/ Swiss Eichel (acorn)

• Celtic football club, predominantly Catholic and Irish in its ethnicity, proudly claims the clover leaf as its symbol (left). Alfa Romeo sports the four-leaf quadrifoglio as a model and brand badge. Sundry businesses large and small endeavour to associate themselves with good fortune with clover-leaf logos

• HMS Clover, a Flower-class corvette built in Paisley and launched in 1941, was adopted by Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire. She served as an escort with convoys in South and West Atlantic waters before helping to shepherd the small boats across the Channel for the Normandy invasion. Sold for mercantile duties in 1946 and renamed Cloverlock, she was later purchased by the Chinese navy and became a warship again, leaving service in the early 1970s

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