Shamrocks are immediately recognized as a symbol of Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day and good luck. Seeing shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day is a modern tradition started in 18th century Ireland when shamrocks tucked into clothing, the “wearing of the green,” was a sign of support for the Irish Rebellion and a hanging offense if caught. Today, wearing green on March 17 is not illegal, but not wearing green on that day, according to tradition, could get you pinched.
The shamrock’s day in history
Saint Patrick (Maewyn Succat), a patron Saint of Ireland, was born in Britain around 400 AD. At the age of 16 he was kidnapped by a pagan warlord (King Niall of the Nine Hostages) and spent six years in slavery as a shepherd in Ireland before he escaped to France. He then became a priest and was sent back to Ireland in 432 as a missionary to convert the Irish to Christianity. The Irish embraced their new faith and Saint Patrick’s legacy was set. Saint Patrick may have used a native shamrock to illustrate the principle of the trinity (father, son and the Holy Spirit) to his worshippers.
How do you know if it’s a shamrock?
Shamrock is an English form of the Irish word 'seamrog' which means 'young clover.' Many plants claim the name shamrock, although they are different botanically. In most people’s minds, to be called a shamrock the plant must have the traditional three-lobed (trifoliate), heart-shaped green leaf with a white flower (although the purple leaf shamrock with pink flowers is now popular, too).
All clovers can be called shamrocks, but not all shamrocks are clovers. Many more plants are called shamrocks around St. Patrick’s Day than the rest of the year when they are probably called 'Oxalis' or 'clover.'
Four-leaf clovers (an uncommon variation of the three-leaf type) are believed to bring good luck to their finders. According to legend, the first leaflet is for hope, the second for faith, the third for love and the fourth for luck. The chances of finding a four-leaf clover are about 10,000 to one. Five-leaf clovers are supposed to be even luckier (and rarer) than four leaf clovers and so on.
Shamrocks are easy to grow indoors as houseplants in a shallow pot. Most are not hardy outdoors during the winter (exceptions are Oxalis oregana (zone 7), Oxalis triangularis (zone 6), O. regnellii (zone 7), O. adenophylla (zone 7), O. acetosella (zone 6). They all grow from dormant rhizomes, which can be purchased from garden centres in the spring. The best bet is to look for 'Oxalis' rhizomes if you can't find any labelled shamrock.
For the non-hardy ones, grow in a bright, indirect (north or east) window or outside shaded during the summer. Shamrocks like cooler temperatures, especially in bloom (10-18 C at night and below 23 C daytime). High temperatures may induce dormancy. To force it to go dormant, stop all watering and set it somewhere dark and above freezing. Most shamrocks need two to three months of dormancy every fall and winter. Start watering in late winter to resume growth.
When actively growing, keep the soil moist, but not soggy. Let the soil dry out slightly before watering again. If the leaves become floppy, it may need more light or the location is too warm. If it stops blooming, it may need rest.
Speckled leaves may mean that spider mites are present and several blasts of water should deter them. Yellowing leaves could be the sign of too much water and wilting leaves or too little water.
Propagating shamrocks is very easy. Simply remove the rhizomes, divide and replant in a new pot with new soil. Plant the rhizomes just below the surface of the soil.
See shamrocks in their native habitat, the Emerald Isle. Enter to win a trip for two to Ireland with Erin!