The “E” in HEARTS is for ecology and in keeping with our theme of Irish Connections, this month we celebrate our plentiful local shamrocks, Trifolium repens (white clover). Oxalis or wood sorrels are often sold as shamrocks, but don’t be misled; the true Irish shamrocks are our simple and beneficial local clover.
The word shamrock derives from the Irish “seamróg,” meaning "young clover.” Native to Ireland and Europe, white clover was brought over by early immigrants and widely cultivated during precolonial times. It is now naturalized throughout the US.
The three leaves of the shamrock are the Irish symbol for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and often associated with St. Patrick, but their lore goes back centuries further to the Druids and Celts. The four leaf clover, also Trifolium repens, is a genetic mutation whose rarity renders them lucky for the beholder.
The benefits of clover are many, but unfortunately, it is often scorned and destroyed as a weed by those seeking a perfect lawn. However, unlike a high maintenance lawn, clover requires little attention and gives back much to the environment.
A dense ground cover, clover prevents erosion and releases nitrogen to promote richer soil. As an integral part of the ecosystem and food web, clover feeds wildlife as well as livestock. A historic and healthy pasture crop, cattle and sheep that graze on clover often don't need other types of feed due to its nutritional benefits.
Honeybees love clover and help pollinate other plants so they too can bloom. Other animals that enjoy clover include deer, rabbits, foxes, and woodchucks. Clover is a mainstay for insects and butterflies like the eastern tiger swallowtail and the spice-bush swallowtail. Birds that graze on clover include Canada geese, wild turkey, grouse, partridge, and quail.
Historic healers from the Druids to American Indians to pioneers, recognized clover’s wide range of health benefits too, many of which continue to be used in modern medicine today. Five Trifolium species (repens, africanum, burchellianum, dubium and pratense) are known to be rich in essential nutrients and an optimal mix of protein, fiber, calcium, selenium, and Vitamins A and D.
Embracing clover within our landscapes is clearly good for the environment. Through utilizing clover in lawns, herbicide and pesticide use is reduced, helping our soil and water quality. Clover helps grass become more disease resistant through providing minerals to the lawn, which also reduces the need for fertilizers. So, the next time you see a patch of clover, we hope you take a moment and appreciate the lore of this legendary groundcover. You can help our environment’s future by keeping clover in your yard, and maybe you’ll find a lucky four-leaf clover too!