Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone! As a plant lover, this holiday has to be one of my favorites just because I get to wear green (my favorite color). After doing something similar around Christmas for poinsettias, I decided to do a little digging the plant related traditions that go along with St. Patrick's Day, especially the symbol of the holiday: the shamrock.

File:Irish clover.jpg

The name shamrock is derived from Irish word "seamr√≥g", which is the diminutive version of the Irish word for clover (seamair) which means "little clover" or "young clover". Because shamrock is a common name, it's often used to refer to a few different species, usually Trifolium dubium (lesser clover) or Trifolium repens (white clover). There are also other three-leaved plants that are often called shamrocks or clovers. There is no consensus on which is the "true" shamrock and many botanists hold different opinions on the matter. A survey showed that Lesser Clover was the most favored by botanists by a small percentage. White clover, however, is most similar to the form that is seen on most St. Patrick's Day decorations. 

File:Trifolium repens Leaf April 2, 2010.jpg
White Clover
File:Trifolium dubium kz1.jpg
Lesser Clover
The first mention of clovers in Irish literature dates back centuries, but it is only in English translations that the separate word "shamrock" appears. The very first mention of shamrock in the English language was in a writing that stated that the Irish ate shamrocks and clover when in fact there is no evidence in any Irish literature that this was a true. There was evidence, however, that the Irish ate wood sorrel, and further English writings seemed to confuse the two. For example, a writing might call what they ate shamrocks, but then describe things like "bitter taste" which is a trait of wood sorrel. 

The most commonly known legend about shamrocks in relation to St. Patrick's Day is that St. Patrick used its three leaved structure to teach the Holy Trinity to Irish pagans. It's unknown if this actually occurred, but is probably the most popular shamrock myth.

File:Kilbennan St. Benin's Church Window St. Patrick Detail 2010 09 16.jpg
St. Patrick depicted holding a shamrock.
One early St. Patrick's Day tradition involving a shamrock was "The Drowning of the Shamrock", which, on the 17th of March, was were the men would lift their usual fasting restrictions of Lent and go to the nearest tavern to mark the day with a few drinks. One account explains:

"At the end of the day the shamrock which has been worn in the coat or the hat is removed and put into the final glass of grog or tumbler of punch; and when the health has been drunk or the toast honoured, the shamrock should be picked out from the bottom of the glass and thrown over the left shoulder."

It's not terribly difficult to see where our current St. Patrick's Day traditions come from, given this information. 

The shamrock is also the national symbol of Ireland and is depicted in many emblems of state, has been worn by many revolutionaries and militias over the course of Irish history as a symbol of national pride. You'll also see it on postage stamps, the planes of Aer Lingus (the Irish airline), the symbol of the Irish Farmers Association and many Irish sports teams. 

A four-leaf clover is a rare form of the three-leaved clover and is thought to be caused by a recessive gene and possibly errors caused by environmental effects. Research has now made it possible for breeders to work with the four-leaf forms and breed them at a higher pace. 

File:Four-leaf clover.jpg
A four-leaf form of White Clover.
So now you have a few shamrock plant facts to pull out around your plant-loving friends (and your family who, if they're like mine, will nod and smile as you spout off more plant information). I wish I could've gotten this up sooner, but I was stuck in a car on the way home to Michigan for spring break today. I hope you all had a lovely weekend and a fun St. Patrick's Day! 

Source: Wikipedia
Picture Sources:

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