clover
Flowers, Herbs

Red, White, and Four Leaf Clover

Clover is a leguminous plant in the pea family, Fabaceae. This family is incredibly diverse with many species found all over the world from high altitude mountains to tropic beaches. These leafy plants can be annual, biennial, or short lived perennials. They can even be evergreen in some environments. Red and white clover are the species most people are familiar with and are frequently seen in lawns or meadows all over the world.

 

Red Clover

Red clover is also known as meadow trefoil, cleaver grass, marl grass, sweet clover, wild clover, cow clover, and purple clover. Each leaf consists of three leaflets, and the plant’s seed pods are short and brightly colored. It is a short lived perennial plant with a large taproot that makes it especially drought tolerant and is native to Europe, Western Asia, and northwest Africa. Bumblebees love its dark pink color and are red clover’s primary pollinator. The plants have hairy hollow stems and can grow from eighteen to thirty inches.

 

Red clover is a nitrogen fixer, making it valuable because of its ability to increase soil fertility. Red clover is also used medicinally, and while its effects have not been tested in a lab, its is claimed to help menopause, coughs, lymphatic disorders, and cancer.

 

clover

 

White Clover

Like red clover, white clover is also native to Europe and parts of Asia and is very common in many other parts of the world. It is also commonly found in many gardens and lawns in North American and New Zealand.

 

White clover is one of the most important foraging legumes in temperate climates. It is a superior nitrogen fixer (even more so than red clover) that restores depleted soil fertility while also feeding grazing animals like cattle. The clover is also very hardy and can often grow where other plants would die, all the while out competing weeds.

 

Beside being an excellent pasture crop, white clover has several uses for humans. The leaves and flowers are edible and make for an excellent survival food when boiled because of their high protein content. They are also a folk remedy for intestinal worms, and the dried flowers can be used an an alternative to smoking tobacco.

 

clover

 

Four Leaf Clover

If you’ve ever combed over a clump or clover looking for a four leaf clover, you’re not alone. Lots of people look for four leaf clovers hoping for a bit of extra luck. However, it’s not luck that goes into creating the plant’s extra leaf; it’s genetics.

 

While there are over 300 different species of clover, white clover is the species most likely to produce a rare extra leaf. That extra leaf comes directly from the plant’s genes. The lucky fourth leaf is actually the result of a failed attempt to evolve. When the first ancestor of clover began to split into new species, its offspring had diploid (two) chromosomes. Sometime later, the separate but related clover species met again and interbred. Instead of recombining into diploid chromosomes, the clover managed to keep both pairs, making them allotetraploid, or possessing four chromosomes. The expression of these chromosome is what can cause a fourth leave to surface.

 

Some plants will even mutate to create more than four leaves. The Guinness world record for the most leaves on a single stem is 56.

 

If you’re trying to increase your chance of finding a four leaf  clover, try looking towards the end of the summer. The clover’s gene expression is influenced by warm weather. Also, try looking around places where you’re found clovers before. Plants that have already produced multiple leaves are more likely to pass on their genes to their immediate area.

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Shamrocks

While many people associate four leaf clovers with shamrocks, they aren’t actually the same thing. Shamrocks are a cultural icon in Ireland. The word “shamrock” comes from “seamair óg” which means “young clover,” and first popped up in some of the earliest irish literature including references  to one of the ancient goddesses, Tailtiu. Originally, the clover was likely associated with the druids. Later, when Christianity came into conflict with paganism, shamrocks became linked to St. Patrick. The saint was said to use the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the doctrine of the Christian trinity. Today, the shamrock is a national symbol of Irish identity, and is featured in national iconography.

 

Olwen of the Clover

Today’s story is a very old Welch story dating from the 12th century. Olwen, one of the main characters, was likely one of the very first sun goddess. She was also the goddess of life and death. Her story contains one of the earliest recorded mentions of King Arthur.

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Olwen was the daughter of the Chief Giant Yspaddaden Penkawr. She was lovely; strong of stature with long golden hair. Everywhere she stepped a white clover sprung up in her wake.

 

Yspaddaden loved his daughter and gave her every happiness that he could. However, there was one thing he could not give her. When Olwen was born, her father was given a prophecy. If she should ever marry, he would die. To keep his daughter from ever finding love, he set 39 very difficult tasks for her suitors. Only the person who completed all the tasks could claim her hand in marriage. Many tried Yspaddaden’s trials, and many failed.

 

One day, rumor of Olwen and the strange circumstances around her reached the court of King Arthur. The king’s cousin, Culhwch, was intrigued by the young maiden’s plight. He petitioned Arthur for aid, which the king granted.

 

Culhwch, Arthur, and his knights set out to find Olwen. They journeyed many days and had many adventures. Once evening, weary and in need of food, they came across the home of a shepherd. Before they could ask for shelter for the night, the man’s wife called them into her home. She knew the two noble men very well. In fact, she was a distant cousin, who had married into a far away family of noble giants.

 

As the tired men ate, the shepherd introduced her husband, Custennin, who it just so happened was Yspaddaden’s brother. Determined to eliminate competition for the title of Chief Giant, Yspaddaden demoted his brother to the role of shepherd and sent him far away from their home. Custennin was only too happy help Culhwch win a bride and destroy Yspaddaden in the process.

 

Following Custennin directions, the party finally found Olwen, and she was just as  fair as they had heard. Even better, she seemed to like Culhwch just as much as he liked her. As expected, Yspaddaden set the men to each of his 39 tasks. Working furiously, Culhwch began to complete each trial set before him. With the help of his cousin and his men, he brought the cauldron of the underworld to Yspaddaden and laid it at his feet. He then  hunted the magical boar Twrch Trwyth and returned with his horn. With each task, he grew closer to end of his ordeal, until finally, he returned on May Day, finished, to claim his bride.

 

As Culhwch reached for Olwen’s hand, Yspaddaden gasped and breathed his last, and the two young lovers could finally be together. They walked hand in hand to start their new lives, trailing clover as they went.

 

Symbolism

In the Victorian Language of Flowers, a four leaf clover means “be mine,” a white clover means “think of me,” and a red clover means “industry.”

 

In the Japanese Language of Flowers a four leaf clover means “lucky.”

 

“Luck” is also a common association with four leaf clovers for many cultures outside of the Flower Languages.

If you’d like to try growing clover yourself, one of my favorite seed companies, Botanical Interests, has several varieties including Crimson Clover and Red Clover Sprouts.

References

Brief History of Red Clover

Red Clover

Vermont State Flower – The Red Clover

Trifolium repens – white clover

Clover – White

The Mysterious Genetics of Four-Leaf Clover

Luck or DNA

The History of the Shamrock

Shamrock

Olwen, Welsh Flower and Sun Goddess

Culhwch and Olwen

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