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.


  1. Thanks for sharing, very interesting! I didn't even know we had shamrocks in the U.S. but I just blogged about finding a purple one at a nursery recently! Happy St. Patrick's Day!

  2. Interesting history behind the Shamrock! Love your blog style :D

  3. Fascinating stuff ... the one I think of when I'm thinking of a shamrock is the wood sorrel. What beautiful wildflowers they all are.

    And yes ... we had a pub in our city called 'The Shamrock'!! No longer exists but I do remember it well.

  4. This is wonderful information. I planted Trifolium repens around my rural house because I'm not up to all the watering, fertilizing, weed killing and lawn mowing that grass requires. Happy belated St. Patricks day.