Sandy’s Garden ... Shamrock

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson
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Friday, 17 March, was St. Patrick’s Day, when a member of the Royal Family presented shamrocks to the Irish Guards.

The reason for linking the shamrock with St. Patrick remains obscure. Not many years before Thomas Dinely penned his words, a halfpenny piece was minted in Ireland showing St. Patrick, with mitre and crozier, displaying a trefoil … a three-leaved plant … to an assembly of people. Many people have speculated on the Irish Mint’s choice of design, which probably represents St. Patrick explaining the Holy Trinity, the three-part deity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. What is certain is that the shamrock very quickly became recognised as the symbol of Ireland; and only fifty years after this first-known linking of Ireland’s patron saint with the shamrock, an English satirist called Ireland “Shamrogh-shire.”

So on Friday a great many Irish people wore … but what did they wear? They called it a shamrock: but there isn’t a plant of that name recognised by botanists; and different Irishmen will show you different plants, each confidently declaring his choice to be the true shamrock. The matter is not made any easier by the fact that Irish tradition is unhelpfully vague. The shamrock is not a clover; the shamrock never flowers; and the true shamrock refuses to grow in foreign soil; and that pretty well sums up what Irish tradition has to tell you about this mysterious plant.

Appropriately, we can turn to the work of an Irish policeman to help us find out what the shamrock actually is. A little over one hundred years ago, Nathaniel Colgan, a clerk with the Dublin Constabulary, asked as many people as he could contact to send him pieces of rooted shamrock for his garden. He planted every root and encouraged them to grow until the plants were large enough for positive botanical identification. The most common plant turned out to be lesser yellow trefoil, with white clover in second place … despite the Irish insistence that shamrock is not a clover … with red clover in third place and black medick coming fourth. And only some twenty years back, the Irish National Botanic Garden repeated Nathaniel Colgan’s experiment, with exactly the same results. Lesser yellow trefoil is still the plant identified by about one-half of Irish people as the shamrock; and sprigs of yellow trefoil were the plants most commonly worn as ‘shamrocks’ by the Irish on Friday.

And if you were in an Irish pub on Friday evening, I hope you weren’t injured by flying trefoil. Some Irishmen ‘drown the shamrock’ by dropping it into their final drink, draining the glass and then tossing the drowned shamrock over their left shoulder. So be it!

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society