Shamrocks: Myths, Legends, Folklore, and Facts

Luck of the Irish, St. Patrick’s Day, lucky four-leaf clover: A shamrock and a four-leaf clover are the same plant – right?
Shamrocks: Myths, Legends, Folklore, and Facts - News


I found in my research that no, they are not the same, but the difference is surprising. According to Irish Indeed, the legend of the shamrock goes something like this: A bishop named Patrick lived in the land of the Druids (now known as Ireland). Patrick was a teacher of the word of God and was well loved and truly a saint. Some of his followers came to him one day and confessed they had a hard time believing the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. At this point St. Patrick picked a shamrock and used it to explain the Holy Trinity, which was accepted and the shamrock became one of the symbols of Ireland. Another legend states the Celtic druids started the three leaf clover’s fame. They believed 3 was the perfect number and had mystical powers. The three leaves may have represented underground, earth, and sky, but no one knows for sure. It is said that St. Patrick went about converting the druids and using the shamrock to explain the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity.

There are actually many plants that are clovers and some that are mimics. Most of us are familiar with white clover and red clover, but there is also lesser trefoil, or hop clover, and black medick (not a true clover). I’m sure you have seen the beautiful Oxalis plants of which there are about 570 species according to Wikipedia. Wood sorrels are also sometimes confused with clovers.

What about four-leaved clovers? “It is estimated that, on average, there are 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every instance of a true four-leaf clover.” (The Spruce) I know I have spent many hours searching for a four-leaf clover and have yet to find one. One would certainly need to be lucky to find a four-leaf clover.

"If a man walking in the fields find any four-leaved grass, he shall in a small while after find some good thing." Sir John Melton 1620

So what are the differences between shamrocks and clovers? Not all clovers are shamrocks, but all shamrocks are clovers. Clovers are in the Trifolium family and the word Trifolium means having three leaves. A clover can’t be a shamrock if it has four leaves. Having four leaves is just a genetic mutation of a three-leaf clover. But just to make it clear as mud – even botanists can’t agree on which clovers are shamrocks. Basically the difference is a shamrock is a three-leaf clover symbol of Ireland and a four-leaf clover is a symbol of good luck.

As a gardener and pollinator lover I let the clover grow in my yard. I plan to add Oxalis Triangularis (Purple Shamrock) to my houseplant collection soon. Note – this is not a true shamrock because it is not a clover.

Fox has a deep-rooted love of plants and maintains several garden beds in her pollinator-friendly certified yard.