They say everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, and there are lots of ways we can show our affection for the Emerald Isle every March the 17th. We can dress all in green, enjoy a pint of Guinness or throw a playlist of traditional Irish folk songs onto our iPhones. All these are acceptable ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day … so long as none of them include a four-leaf clover. We know what you’re thinking! But four-leaf clovers are the symbol of St. Patrick’s Day! Well, we’re sorry to be the ones to tell you, but four-leaf clovers are about as authentically Irish as a bowl of Lucky Charms. Don’t feel bad about your mistake, though; it’s a misconception that people have been embracing for centuries.
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When most people think of the Irish four-leaf clover, they’re actually thinking about the shamrock. This three-leaf plant became deeply tied to the Irish people when in the 5th century St. Patrick used it to teach them about Christianity. He presented the three-leaf sprig of clover as a symbol for the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These three entities all exist as one person, in the same way the three leaves exist in one plant. The metaphor took hold, and over time, the shamrock became the national symbol of Ireland.
Obviously, if the three leaves of the shamrock are what make the plant so important to Irish heritage, then a four-leaf clover just doesn’t add up. A four-leaf clover refers to an aberration of a three-leaf white clover plant (which is actually a deep shade of green). The extra leaf is extremely rare, appearing only once in every 10,000 plants, so finding one has come to be considered extremely lucky.
Over the centuries as these traditions migrated overseas, the two plants began to get confused. Although there’s no exact account of how or why this happened, it may be tied to the California Gold Rush of the late 19th century. A large number of the most successful miners during that time period were Irish, which eventually led to the coining of the phrase, “the luck of the Irish.” Although the saying does have some negative connotations — implying that the Irish obtained their fortunes due to dumb luck more than hard work — it stuck, and soon being Irish and being lucky became forever intertwined. With the shamrock and the four-leaf clover already looking so similar, it’s not hard to see why American minds started confusing them and applied the lucky one (the clover) to the people they already thought of as lucky.
But now that you know the difference, you have no excuse for making the same mistake. A lot of Irish people will take offense to you mixing up the two, so if you really want to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, you’ll pack away anything with four leaves and break out the shamrocks!