Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Would the real Shamrock please stand up?

Would the real Shamrock please stand up?

As an Irish person with an interest in botany I am bemused by the lack of a single definitive species that equates to that commonly and affectionately known as Shamrock. Shamrock could be any one of 5 plant species and trying to find out which is the true original Shamrock is difficult. In true Irish fashion, there is no straight answer.

The name Shamrock comes from the Irish word seamair, meaning clover. However other species are also in the pot for the title of the true shamrock. The frontrunners are:

Trifolium dubium - lesser yellow trefoil

Trifolium repens - the white flowered clover, very common in grassland, trifolium meaning with three leaflets and repens meaning creeping

Medicago lupulina - black medick, lupulinus means resembling hops

Oxalis acetosella - wood sorrel, with white flowers, also known as wood shamrock.

Trifolium pratense - red clover

Charles Nelson (the author of many beautiful books on Irish plants and the history of gardening in Ireland) carried out a survey to see which was the plant most widely aknowledged to be shamrock. Tifolium dubium came out on top.

Shamrock used to come in clumps that were divided up and pinned onto lapels for St Patrick’s day Mass. As a kid I planted a clump that had some root attached and it grew long and spindly and had little yellow flowers. Nowadays things have moved on and you can buy it in little pots for a euro. The Irish Times predicted a shortage of shamrock this year due to the severe winter we have had here but most of the shamrock sold today is grown in nurseries and in my local supermarket there were pots a plenty today.

The emblem of the shamrock is actually a registered trademark of the Irish Government and is meant to denote ‘Irishness’. However its use is worldwide and it might refer to a hotel in Australia, a pub in Spain, a large boat in the Netherlands or a casino in Vegas. It also appears in a corner of the flag of Montreal as a testament to the Irish who settled there in the 19th century.

There is a myth that shamrock does not grow beyond the shores of the emerald isle. This is a falsehood as the plants mentioned above are also native to Europe and parts of Asia and just like the millions of Irish emigrants that left these shores over the years, they are making their presence felt in other parts of the world and may even be threatening invaders.

Trifolium repens, Oxalis and Medicago are all listed on, the database of plants invading natural areas in the US. So the myth of shamrock not growing anywhere else is like that of the leprechaun. We might like to think these myths are true, especially when the tourists come but in fact it is all just a load of Blarney. There is no such thing as Trifoliolatus hibernicus.

‘The Drowning of the Shamrock” today refers to the practice of getting as drunk as possible as early in the day as possible. It used to be that the shamrock that was pinned to the lapel for Mass on St Patricks day ended up at the bottom of a pint glass that evening, and was then thrown over the shoulder when the last drop was downed. Hence the shamrock was literally drowned in beer. But I have never seen this done. Perhaps it is still done down the country (ie. in the rural areas of Ireland). For many dedicated drinkers that would probably be seen as time wasting. When our head of State, the Taoiseach, was asked if he had a message for Americans on St Patrick’s Day he urged them to start slow as it is a long day. Cringe. There is no doubt about it, the Irish are very thirsty on St. Patricks day, and as the saying goes, thirst is a shameless disease.

But its not all about drink I am glad to say. Every town in Ireland has a parade and every year the costumes of the parade goers seem to get more ridiculous. Leprechaun hats and face paints are now de rigueur. And the kids just love it.

I wonder which species of Shamrock was presented to President Obama today and how they got it through customs! I am off now to indulge in some pageantry and I hope this post of shamrocking was of interest to some one. La Fheile Padraig to one and all.

Friday, February 19, 2010

When the Party is Over

I got to spend a decent amount of time in the garden yesterday. It was a lovely sunny afternoon, but suddenly I felt the chill and had to come inside. I had had enough. It was mainly tidying up and it felt a little like clearing up after a party. Getting rid of all the 'empties', dead stems and leaves, and many of the plants looked like they had severe hangovers. Some couldn't last the pace and have bowed out permanently. Any calls for last orders were greeted with a frosty reception. My Shark's Fin Acacia has turned brown and its uniquely shaped leaves surround it in a circle of rotten confetti on the ground. My Chilean Lantern, Crinodendron hookerianum, which is usually able to last the pace, will be lighting up the garden no more. Its boisterous crimson beacons will be sadly missed. However some die-hards are still going strong.

And after all damage has been assessed and the debris cleared up, it is time to analyse the pairings that may or may not have worked during the revelry. Sometimes putting two plants together can be a little like a blind date. How they will get on together is unknown and only time will tell. Other times you know from experience of these plants that one will dominate the other too much or that they are just not compatible. And sometimes you effect a perfect match. Plants that stumble together may end up standing the test of time.

Soon the drinking games will start again as plants race each other to get going. At the moment the Snowdrop is ahead but soon it will be the turn of the Daffodils and Tulips to shine. And by summertime the party will be in full swing again, everything wearing its party face, jostling for space, competing for attention and performing to the best of their abilities. And then it will be time for the Gardener to just sit back and enjoy the show.