Folks who, like me, desire to grow and wear the real shamrock of St. Patrick to celebrate the Saint and things Irish each March, probably need look no further than their lawn or nearest pasture.
Why is this? Because, as I have learned through a first rate book bought in the Irish National Botanic Gardens (Glasnevin, Dublin), there is no one plant unique to all of Ireland which can be called “shamrock”. All my years of searching for true shamrock seed to grow have been for zilch and now I find out that the plants I fancy are almost under my nose.
The myth of the shamrock begins, as you would expect, with Patrick, that ancient Briton who would later in his life become bishop to Ireland. Because of Patrick’s writings, we know more about him than about other ancient Britons of the Roman period. Nelson points out that though Patrick’s own Epistle and Confession are the only authentic sources of his life, nowhere in these letters or anything written about Patrick in the time immediately after his death is there mention of trefoils or shamrocks of any botanical kind.
Nelson’s book continues a chronological exploration of the shamrock’s history from ancient scribes, dictionary writers, mapmakers, through Kings, Queens, patriots and rebels, to artists, artisans and poets. The book is packed with enchanting black and white drawings that illustrate how the shamrock idea was and is still used as a motif in all sorts of designs and decorations. My favorite images are those of a Victorian dust-jacket for a book entitled A Daughter of Erin by Violet G. Finny, and a day dress of green poplin with separate bodice and skirt, embroidered with cream (on the skirt) and green (on the bodice) shamrocks.
The book’s final chapter Vox Hiberniae (loosely, Voice of the Irish) sets about reviewing the shamrock’s present position in modern life and whether or not the myth survives. The shamrock myth and all its fabrications are alive and well, Nelson assures the reader. He incorporates very believable and at times incomprehensible anecdotes of shamrock growing and wearing into his ending.
But the real gem for gardeners, florists and botanists in the entire book is Nelson’s recounting of one of his taxonomic projects In a 1988 survey and research conducted at the National Botanic Gardens (Glasnevin, Dublin), shamrock samples from the wild across all Ireland were studied and compared with results from similar work carried out during the 19th century. The major thing that Nelson learned was that perceptions of the Irish shamrock as a plant have not changed much in over one hundred years.
The conclusion of both studies showed that the Irish shamrock may be one of any of these four common clovers or trefoils:
- Lesser trefoil (seamair bhui) – Trifolium dubium or T. minor
- White clover (seamair bhan) – Trifolium repens
- Black medick (dumheidic) – Medicago lupulina
- Red clover (seamair dhearg) – Trifolium pratense and in more recent times,
- Wood sorrel (seamsog) – Oxalis acetosella but its claim to be the true shamrock was rejected as long ago as 1830.
Shamrock is clover, nothing more, nothing less. That is what the word originally meant, what it still means, and what it will mean until the end of time.
So what does that leave folks like me looking for in pastures and lawns? White Dutch clover, the low growing kind, is also known in the seed business as Shamrock or Irish clover. It is definitely a strain of Trifolium repens.
Trifolium repens also known as Shamrock or Irish Clover
This White Dutch clover, once a staple of lawns in the Northeast U.S. and parts of Canada, was the essence of my childhood summers – providing little bouquets, beestings and interesting patterns in the lawn. Although I did not realize it at the time, this familiar plant, introduced by early European colonists, has a lot going for it.
It is low growing and green through summer dry spells and before the 1950’s provided nitrogen for lawn grasses. Widespread and increasingly inexpensive use of fertilizers and herbicides changed the incidences of clover in lawns. Today, this once popular lawn component is now widely looked upon either as a weed or a forage crop.
However, white clover is slowly making a comeback in low-maintenance lawns. Residents of pesticide free zones in Canada are again using white clover for their lawns. It is growing in popularity in the Northeast United States as well. Homeowners wanting to try growing some in their own lawns, and willing to keep away from broad-leaf herbicides, will find the following characteristics of White Dutch clover very valuable.
White Dutch clover:
- grows about four to eight inches high,
- tolerates low mowing well,
- spreads to fill in empty spaces,
- stays green through dry periods of summer,
- tolerates dog urine and
- provides nitrogen (up to 2 pounds of N/1000 square feet) for the other grasses in the lawn, eliminating the need to fertilize.
‘Tis A Happy Wearing of the Green
Now you know you can grow and appreciate your own shamrocks as well as have an inexpensive and healthy lawn.
If you need professional tree management or yard maintenance for your house garden, Portland TT is here to help.