In praise of the shamrock: A little plant that grew into a famous symbol

Our relationship with the shamrock is older than our relationship with Christianity, writes Fiann Ó Nualláin.

SO IT IS St Patrick’s weekend and many are wearing the green, as generations have before them and both real and artificial shamrock is to be seen, limp on lapels and precociously pinned to babies in prams, as we collectively freeze while watching the local floats and cheering on the pride of our communities.

We know the story: St Patrick, with his possible Stockholm syndrome-induced love of the Irish, came back to his former hostage place and explained the Holy Trinity through this little plant, thus freeing us from our pagan ways of mutual respect, female deities, and nature worship to a different system altogether, and as thanks we put it on the side of our once-national airline and flew out to where snakes might actually exist; to play baseball, or Aussie GAA.

In truth, our relationship with the shamrock is older than our relationship with Christianity. And beyond a national logo that’s a worldwide recognised brand, there is something impressive in the real plant if we take a closer look.

Over the centuries, different counties have worn different shamrocks, some preferring sorrels over clovers, and that echoes back to local ethnomedicine; to when, before we wore it, we actually ate it or rubbed it in. More on that in a minute.

There is no true, single, botanical “shamrock”, it is more of an idea than a species. And it was always thus. The name itself is a corruption of seamróg, denoting a “little plant”. The bowlful that goes to The White House and the popular variety sold around the land is often Trifolium dubium, aka seamar bhuí or yellow clover/lesser trefoil — while other clovers are available too (lest we have inter-county friction).

The other typical shamrock plant is Oxalis acetosella, aka seamróg coillead or wood shamrock/wood sorrel.

The “true shamrock” debate has caused controversy and even stand-up rows for generations; there is a great book on the back-story called Shamrock: Botany and History of an Irish Myth by E Charles Nelson. Nelson’s extensive research found that the clover type was the most popular and consistent. That said, either type is valid as a “little plant” but the associations are often unmovable.

I learned of the edible side, or rather the medicinal application of the little plant — the tonic of spring — from my granddad, who swore by it. The fact is that over the course of winter, we humans tend to accumulate excess waste and toxins in our bodies through a combination of decreased activity and increased comfort food, so we can end up entering spring on the sluggish side. Our ancestors developed a system to deal with that — they ingested bitter substances to give the system a kick-start.

“Bitters” works because most poisonous plants are bitter-tasting and so whenever we taste bitterness on our tongue, the brain thinks it has ingested a poison and flicks the switch on a self-detox; the liver and gallbladder are activated to create bile and digestive enzymes to break down any received toxins, and in the process remove fats and speed up metabolism and lymphatic drainage.

Both the young plants of sorrels and the clovers have high vitamin C, and that’s a boost in itself — we are talking a teaspoon, not a White House bowl. Just enough to flip the switch, not fuel the week. That’s like a touch of cress in a sandwich, or a homemade herbal tea.

If I can sing some extra praises via a weird fact, the ingesting of triglycerides from Trifolium dubium and Trifolium repens have been shown to exert a particular effect on the brain — they stimulate and strengthen the cerebellum and the superior temporal gyrus; two regions associated with the learning and performance of music. Yep, sing those praises.

The traditional healing properties may go back beyond the Iron Age and although the shamrock was not written about until the 1500s, its oral lore was manifold, including as a healing herb for scrofulous ulcers and guess what? The leaves of this plant contain potassium binoxalate: An antiscorbutis agent. Simply utilise as a poultice or compress. Yep, that’s the “rub it in” bit.

Thereafter, there are many references to eating the shamrock, usually by visiting authors referring to the “wild Irish” or “impoverished peasantry”, oft repeated by untravelled Irish authors, but Cork botanist Johannes Keogh noted in 1735 the use of trefoils “for phlegmons and inflammations” and reminded the world of some of its health benefits.

I grow wood sorrel in containers and there is a bit of the clover type between some cobbles at the side entrance.

Whichever type you prefer, now is an ideal time to get some seed and grow for spring tonics, or wearing to the parade next year. I find it is best to sow seed in early spring or late winter, into a propagation unit, maintaining a germination temperature of 13C-18C (55C-64F) but a warm windowsill will do the trick too. Both types like relatively moist, humus-rich sites in sun edge or partial shade — think woodland edge, their natural habitat.

The shamrock to me is still a beautifully Irish thing, full of Irish spiritually. Holy Trinity aside for the moment; the tripartite goddesses of Ireland aside for the moment too, I see in it a wonderful universal message: Sorrel and clover leaflets can show “sleep movements”; that’s opening up and spreading in light and recoiling from darkness. If ever a life lesson needed echoing. You missed a trick there, Patrick, but some of us persistent pagans remembered to look as well as listen. Pass it on and have a great weekend whatever side you’re on.

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