Wednesday, July 20, 2005
When I was a very small child, my friends and I used to look for red clovers and detach the flowers' petals one by one to suck sweet nectar from their bases. The sweetness of this very plentiful and charming little plant, with its rather delicate scent, makes it highly popular with bees and other insects. It is especially liked by bumble bees, so much so that in some areas it is known as bee-bread.
The red clover, one of several in this pea-related family of plants, is perhaps the best known and best loved of our meadow flowers where, in many cases, it is grown as a crop, sometimes in association with other plants. When mixed with rye grass, for example, it produces very good hay, and in some cases it is grown simply to be ploughed back into the ground where its special qualities enrich the soil.
Roots of the red clover bear small nodules containing bacteria and these convert nitrogen into the essential salts which are so vital to a plant's growth. This ability is not possessed by all plants and it has long been hoped that this system can be introduced to commercial crops such as wheat. Nitrogen converted in this way is a valuable fertilizer but when a crop of red clover is grown in a field, that also helps to improve the condition of the soil. Clearly, the red clover is more than just a pretty flower.
Its near relation, the white or Dutch clover, is probably as plentiful but this one is not so welcome in our meadows - it is more of a weed and is found in grassy areas throughout the country. Those of us with lawns know how tenacious the white clover can be once it has established itself. It can take years to eradicate roots which are left in the ground.
Nonetheless, the white clover is another splendid producer of nectar. Bee-keepers like it because it supplements the dandelion and sycamore flowers as a main producer of nectar in the spring. Without the white clover, many bees would have a tough time when the dandelion and sycamore have matured, but this flower is not welcomed in the same way as its red cousin. If eaten in large quantities by animals, it can produce prussic acid which is harmful to them, but fortunately the white clover's taste is not very appetising, a good deterrent.
The leaves of these clovers consist of three leaflets. Those of the white clover are rounded whilst those of the red have a rather more pointed shape but in both cases there are distinctive white patterns on the leaflets. It is these leaves which our forebears considered very lucky if they produced four leaflets, which happens on occasions. Although the clover in general was considered a lucky plant, and one capable of keeping witches and evil spirits at bay, a four-leaved clover was especially valuable. It was considered capable of protecting humans, animals and buildings against all manner of ill-fortune and many country people would wear four-leaved clovers in their hats or button-holes. Some believed that possession of a four-leaved clover enabled the owner to see fairies.
To protect their livestock or their milk and butter supplies, farmers would hang four-leaved clovers in their byres or dairies, while a love-sick girl believed that if she placed a four-leafed clover in her right shoe, the first man she met afterwards would be her future husband, although some thought that it might be a man bearing the same name as that first sighting!
The distinctive leaves of the clovers, the white clover in particular, are often mistaken for those of the shamrock, the symbol of Ireland and emblem of St Patrick. Like the clovers, this has often been regarded as a lucky plant, especially if it bears four leaflets, and some ancient wisemen believed that no serpent would ever come near a shamrock.
Its association with Ireland and St Patrick arises from his famous illustration of the Blessed Trinity. In attempting to explain the belief that God comprises three persons - God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost - Patrick used the leaf of the shamrock as a visible example, saying that while it had three small leaves, it was in fact a single leaf. The belief in a trinity is not confined to Christian churches, however; there are many examples in mythology and other faiths.
In making reference to the Irish plant, it is interesting to consider precisely which is the true shamrock. Some believe it is white clover, others suggest it may be wood sorrel, watercress or even black medick. It is highly likely, however, that it is a common English wild flower, the lesser yellow trefoil which is a relation of the clovers and of peas. The Irish seamrog means little clover and I believe it is the leaves of the lesser yellow trefoil that Irish people display on St Patrick's Day.
Posted by Peter N. Walker @ 02:49 PM GMT [Link]