We all know what shamrock is… or do we? Of course the familiar symbol is well-known from it’s appearance on everything from crystal bowls to t-shirts and other Irish gifts. Those three green leaves are instantly recognized around the world as a symbol of Ireland. But would you recognize them in nature? If you looked a field, would you be able to identify shamrock growing in it? St. Patrick’s Day is a time when friendly debate rages about this plant. What’s the difference between shamrock and clover, we ponder. Is that sprig real shamrock or an imposter? Does it matter if the wee green leaves look the part? Does it really only grow in Ireland?
Even botanists seem to disagree about what exactly a shamrock is. Some early sources describe it as a type of clover. But it is not like the clover that grows in North America. Shamrock has tiny leaves and grows in clusters. American clover, in contrast, has much larger leaves and each trio of leaves grows on its own separate stem. But wood sorrel was common in Ireland too, and also features a trio of small, heart-shaped leaves. Unless you are planning to grow your own, the answer is not really critical. The distinct leaf is well known from its appearance on Irish gifts for generations!
Do You Know These Shamrock Facts?
We might not think of the shamrock as religious, but the plant’s main claim to fame is rooted (so to speak) in its use as a religious symbol. When St. Patrick was preaching Christianity to the Irish, he used the plant to symbolize the holy trinity. The three leaves are one plant, he explained, as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one God. But Patrick’s idea was not entirely original. In pre-Christian Ireland, plants were ascribed with spiritual qualities. The druids considered the shamrock sacred, perhaps because they also considered the number three sacred. (Just look at the carvings of triple spirals at Newgrange!)
Shamrock might be the most universally recognized symbol of Ireland, but it is not an official symbol of the Irish government. The harp has that honor. The national airline, Aer Lingus, does however use the shamrock as a symbol. And the tourism board, Bord Failte, uses the shamrock in its logo. It appears on so many different Irish gifts, it really is our unofficial national symbol.
Early botanists first mention the shamrock in the 1500s, which is also when the word began to appear in poetry. But the mysterious plant did not take its place as our unofficial national emblem until the Irish Volunteers formed in 1778 and began using it as one of their symbols, along with the harp. Perhaps being green gave the shamrock an edge over the harp as a symbol of the Emerald Isle. Regardless, it has endured through the centuries. People still wear a sprig of shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day as our ancestors did, and we still love Irish gifts that feature the shamrock.