A four leaf clover is an aberration of the normally three-leaf Trifolium repens, or "white clover." A perennial member of the pea family, it is a deep green, flowering vine with white blossoms. Also known as the shamrock, it is the unofficial state symbol of Ireland, having many religious and legendary associations, including the provision of good luck. Although the four leaf mutation is considered to be relatively rare, the species as a whole is very common and has agricultural, culinary and medicinal uses. People often confuse it with other varieties of clover.
Religious and Spiritual Associations
The three leaves of Trifolium repens have become associated with the Christian Trinity: God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit. This association is largely connected to Maewyn Succat, better known as St. Patrick, who is said to have used the species to explain the gospel to people in Ireland. An extra leaf is said by some to stand for God's grace. A less dogmatic interpretation applied to the four leaf clover is that one leaf stands for faith, another for hope, the third for love and the last for luck.
Many myths are connected with four leaf clovers, by far the most enduring of which is that they bring bearers good luck. This is actually an adaptation from the Christian story of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, being expelled from the Garden of Eden. According to the legend, Eve brought the plant out of Paradise, and as a remnant of that perfect land, it was able to bring good fortune. The line between myth and religion with the four leaf clover, therefore, is a little blurred.
In the Middle Ages, people also thought that it allowed a person to see fairies and sprites, and children often searched fields for one in order to see into the magical realm. The plants are also said to make a person wealthy, grow only where a mare has foaled, protect against witchcraft and even help women determine who their future husbands will be.
One breeder of white clover, Yoke and Zoom, claims that only about one in 10,000 plants naturally will mutate to produce four leaves. They believe environmental stresses cause the mutation, and that a plant that mutates regularly is even rarer. Through cloning, hydroponics and other methods, however, the company claims to have increased the production of four leaves on the Trifolium repens to one in 41 plants.
White clover grows to about 4 - 6 inches (10.2 - 15.2 centimeters) tall, and it can spread up to 3 feet (0.9 meters). The stems branch from the base, and the slightly notched leaves are usually 0.4 - 0.8 inches (1 - 2 cm) across. Flowers, which are typically 0.19 - 0.35 inches (5 - 9 millimeters), generally appear on taller stalks and are positioned on roundish flowerheads, which measure 0.59 - 0.78 inches (15 - 20 mm) wide.
Plants Sometimes Confused for White Clover
Many types of clover bear only four leaves, so it's necessary to differentiate between these plants and the mutated, four-leaf versions of Trifolium repens. Pepperwort, also called Water Clover, is an example. Its leaves are slightly rounder and are a lighter shade of green. Oxalis bears leaves that are narrow at the base with a reddish starburst center. Three other species, Alsike clover, Buffalo clover and Running Buffalo clover, look similar, too, but they generally are taller plants, and the last type doesn't have white markings on the leaves.
Where It Grows
This plant is native to Europe, as well as West Asia and North Africa, but it has been introduced to many other regions. It grows best in regions where temperatures are at least 68 - 77°F (20 - 25°C), and although it is winter-hardy, it has a low tolerance for drought. The plants thrive in a variety of soil, but they prefer moist clays.
Most commonly, people use these plants in pastures, letting livestock graze on it. Another common use is for ground cover and soil retention. Many people see it as a weed and don't like that the flowers attract bees, but individuals still use it in lawns because of its ability to tolerate trampling and fix nitrogen to the soil.
Less commonly, white clover is used for eating. All parts are consumable, and people have used it in salads, as garnishes, and in soups, teas and similar dishes. Usually, individuals who eat it cook it for a few minutes first, because this makes the plant easier to digest. Sometimes, the dried flowers are ground and made into flour.
Traditionally, this plant species also has medicinal properties. Individuals have used it for common ailments such as coughs, colds and fevers, and it is also used as a blood and wound cleanser. Occasionally, people include it in ointments for gout treatment, and it also has been made into eyewash.