Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Shamrock by Any Other Name ...

Last year's clover, in a sweet little vase from Catherine Reece pottery.
Perhaps because St. Patrick's Day occurs so close to the vernal equinox, I get a little preoccupied with shamrocks and clovers and other green growing things. 

It's the month when many Minnesota gardeners are getting ready to start seeds indoors, and although I feel the same urge, I haven't done much seed starting for quite a few years. I did plant some cilantro seeds in a peat pot a couple of days ago (they're sitting in a south window, waiting to germinate), and that may be the extent of it for me this year.

Some years I have started seeds of white clover, Trifolium repens, at the beginning of February in order to have a pot of them in time for St. Patrick's Day. I've even written about it here and here.

These are not the "shamrocks" you see in the grocery stores about now. That plant is a type of oxalis, aka sorrel, that does not grow wild in Ireland or any other part of the northern hemisphere. But it makes a much nicer houseplant than do the clovers, so I guess the greenhouse growers figured, why not?

Oxalis at Seward Co-op today, in a display with Irish oat bread. Note they're not calling them shamrocks.

The plant identified as a shamrock by a plurality of the Irish (46%  in a 1988 survey) is lesser trefoil, aka hop clover, aka several other common names, aka Trifolium dubium, which is a bit smaller than white clover and has yellow blossoms. Although not as well known as white clover, it is, apparently, about as widespread. Native to Europe and Central Asia, it's been introduced and naturalized in North America, Africa, and New Zealand. 

Phinney the Galway cat (at least, that's where his name comes from) with my watercolor illustration of T. dubium, one of the Irish shamrocks. (Phinney's much more interested in the pencil than the art.)

Now that I've been studying this plant a little, I'm pretty sure I've seen it in many of the grassy strips between the sidewalk and street (which we call the boulevard here in Minneapolis, an apparent idiosyncrasy of my city). It's considered invasive in many areas, but not always because it is a problem for native species; more often, it is said to "invade" lawns. But since lawns aren't exactly natural ecosystems, that's not really saying much. 

Some photos of T. dubium show the plant with much rounder slightly bluish leaves, but that could be a case of mistaken identity, since there are a few look-alike species, as this site explains. 

The reason I've tended to favor white clover (T. repens) as the shamrock, even though it was the runner-up to lesser trefoil in the fore-mentioned survey (at 35%), is because the seeds are easy to come by; and that's because it used to be considered a desirable addition to lawn grass seed mixtures; and that's because it's a legume, as is  T. dubium, and so "fixes" atmospheric nitrogen, which means that it makes it available for other plants to take it up, which makes the grass healthier and greener.

Now it's most often considered a weed by those who prefer a manicured grass-only lawn, an aesthetic that emerged after WWII and the introduction of broadleaf weed-killers, according to historian Virginia Scott Jenkins in her book, The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession (published by Smithsonian Books in 1994). 

In other words, it became a weed once there was an herbicide that could kill it. In fact, the target plants were plantain and dandelions, with clover being an innocent bystander, but in order to sell the chemicals to the public, the makers had to convince them that clovers were weeds too.  

Except now it's finding its way back into the good graces of those who prefer a low-maintenance, diverse lawn that's much prettier than a boring grass carpet. Clover is also very much appreciated by butterflies and bees (including several non-stinging wild bees), mammals* (yes, that includes rabbits, you bunny haters), and birds (who eat the seeds).

My recently completed watercolor of T. repens

Clovers are also edible to humans, offering both protein and carbohydrates. In fact, according to the comprehensive history by Charles Nelson in his book, Shamrock (Boethius Press, 1991), the earliest observations about shamrocks in Ireland, reported by literate visitors, were that the Irish ate them.

And that, not anything St. Patrick did with them (if he did), is the most likely reason shamrocks have become the emblem of Ireland.

* Fun fact—Other wild animals that consume white clover:

Leaves and flowers are eaten by grizzly bears, moose, mules, deer, blue grouse and the white-footed vole.

Seeds are eaten by these birds: northern bobwhite, bufflehead, American coot, several different grouse, the horned lark, mallard, gray partridge, greater prairie chicken, willow ptarmigan, American pintail, California quail, and American robin.

Many butterflies use them as caterpillar nurseries, including the eastern-tailed blue and several sulfurs and skippers. Still more butterflies visit clover blossoms for the nectar.

 (From Encyclopedia of Life)


1 comment:

  1. I'll never think of shamrocks in the same way again. Very interesting. And Phinney makes a fine model.


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