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Photo: Andreana Bitsis

Why Are Four-Leaf Clovers “Lucky”?

In March, finding a four-leaf clover is hardly a stroke of luck. As the 17th of March nears, they seem to sprout up around each corner, blanketing every surface in green just as clover does out in the wilds of Irish landscape. Though they are a distinctly-Irish tradition, four-leaf clovers, or shamrocks as they are also known, are widely considered to be a symbol of luck, and a promise of good fortune to come.

But a clover and a shamrock are not entirely the same. The word “clover” is a general term for the genus of trifoliums (“three leaf”), which comprises 300 different species. What defines a shamrock has been more difficult for scientists to pin down and remains somewhat mythic in the world of botany. Many different representations exist in Celtic art, making it ambitious to tie shamrock to a specific species. Thus the original shamrock (the Platonic shamrock) remains a secret, shrouded somewhere in the green hills of Ireland.

Four Leaf Clover

Photo: Andreana Bitsis | Styling: Nora Mueller

Originally, clover was a symbol of rebirth for the Celts, and its return to the landscape signaled the beginning of spring. The shamrock was sacred among the Druids and was frequently used in rituals. Four-leaf clovers, possessing an extra leaf, were even more hallowed: Druids believed carrying one allowed them to see demons and would ward off evil spirits, which is probably the talismanic belief that gave rise to the shamrock’s association with luck.

The modern celebration of the three-leaf shamrock developed later, with Saint Patrick and the advent of Christianity in Ireland. Heralded as the patron saint of the Emerald Isle, Saint Patrick was actually born in Britain in 387 AD. Kidnapped at age 16 by Irish raiders, Saint Patrick spent the following six years in captivity, working as a herdsman. During that time, he embraced Christianity with ardor and enthusiasm, and later in life returned to Ireland to preach his newfound religion. It is said that in his mission work, which converted thousands to Christianity, Saint Patrick used the bountiful shamrock to explain the balance of unity and separation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

After his death on March 17th (the exact year remains unofficial), Saint Patrick fell somewhat into obscurity. It was not until the 1700s that Saint Patrick began to enjoy his current status of celebrity. In 18th-century Ireland, Irish Christians wore the shamrock both as a sign of pride and as a means to criticize English rule. In America, which was rapidly becoming home to many Irish immigrants, the shamrock served as a symbol of solidarity and community. With time, the custom evolved into simply wearing green clothing.

Four Leaf Clover

Photo Andreana Bitsis

Outside of their prominent associations with St. Patrick’s Day, shamrocks and clover have many more obscure legends, mostly tied to the original Celtic connotation of luck. Interestingly, a great deal of these myths revolve around women: in the Middle Ages, shamrocks were believed to be a witch deterrent; clover was strewn in the path of a bride; and the four-leaf clover was also associated with Eve. The mother of mankind was said to have carried a sprig of four-leafed clover with her from the Garden of Eden as she left. Thus, anyone with a four-leaf clover is believed to be carrying a bit of paradise with them.

Four Leaf Clover

Photo: Andreana Bitsis

The four-leaf clover is not so uncommon, in spite of their reputation as uncommon harbingers of luck. It is estimated there is one four-leafed clover for every 10,000 three-leafed clovers, occurring as a result of a mutation in the regular three-leaf. More unusual is finding clovers with more than four leaflets–five, six, seven, and a world record of fifty-six have all been documented.

Beyond the superstitions, clover has real benefits. It is high in protein and fiber, and can be incorporated into salads and smoothies. Among herbalists, red clover is revered as a cancer-fighting antioxidant. In the dirt, clover is beloved by farmers, as it aids other crops by nitrogen-fixing the soil.

Clovers aren’t only lucky for humans, though. The plant is incredibly important to bees, so much so that it is believed to be one of their favorite plants. The clover honey frequently sold in grocery stores (often in the familiar bear-shaped bottles) is sourced from bees who feed on clover. Of the many varieties of honey that exist, clover honey has the broadest appeal because of its milder floral taste. According to folk wisdom, clover also fattens cows (hence the cherished butter)–giving rise to phrase “to live in clover,” meaning to live luxuriously.

Across the many disparate threads of its origins, the shamrock and various leafed clovers have become international symbols of luck– not just for the Irish or the superstitious, but for all creatures great and small. Just remember— if you’re looking for a little extra luck on March 17th, the luckiest clover you’ll find is the one you come across when you aren’t looking.

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