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Luck O' the Clovers

By Audrey Stallsmith

trifolium vulgare

A triple grass
Shoots up , with dew-drops streaming,
As softly green
As emeralds seen
Through purest crystal gleaming.
Oh the Shamrock, the green, immortal Shamrock!
Chosen leaf
Of Bard and Chief,
Old Erin's native Shamrock!

"O the Shamrock," Thomas Moore

Tradition holds that St. Patrick, the ex-slave who helped convert Ireland to Christianity, used a sprig of white clover to illustrate the three-in-one doctrine of the Trinity. So the shamrock, which derives from the Gaelic seamrog ("summer plant"), became the emblem of his feast day--and, eventually, of his adopted country as well.

Occasionally the national symbol turned into a badge of rebellion against Britain, inspiring the dolorous strains of "they're hanging men and women there for the Wearin' o' the Green." It also turned up, as the suit of clubs, on playing cards!

After the evening meal on St. Patrick's Day, the clover was often removed and "drowned" in the first toast of the evening, before being jettisoned over the wearer's left shoulder. The four-leafed clover, considered even luckier than the shamrock, provided the ultimate defense against witchcraft. A young woman who placed one in her left shoe could presumably count on marrying the first man she meant afterwards--or, at least, his brother! Because St. Patrick was believed to have driven all the serpents out of Ireland, clovers were also supposed to defend against snakes.

The shamrock was not the only accepted lapel decoration on St. Patrick's Day. Colored paper crosses were also popular, and considered by some to be less rustic! The clover does bear a resemblance to a cross itself, however. And its three leaves, in Moore's poem, represent another popular Irish trinity: love, valor, and wit.

White, or creeping, clover (trifolium repens) is, of course only one member of an extensive family. Almost all of the clovers are considered lucky, perhaps because the hay made from them has always been a necessity to farmers.

Their heavenly perfume also helps! In The Fragrant Path, Louise Beeber Wilder wrote of sainfoin honey that "it tastes as white clover smells-and what could be more delicious?" Anyone who has lain in the grass on a splendid summer day, drinking in that scent and watching honeybees hum happily--and almost drunkenly--from blossom to blossom would have to agree.

Another delectable member of the family is melilotus officinalis, also known as sweet or king's clover. Similar to alfalfa but with leaves that are more yellow-green than blue-green, melilotus derives from mel ("honey") and lotus ("a fruit said to induce a dreamy indolence and forgetfulness"). It contains the vanilla-like coumarin that gives both hay and woodruff their perfumes. Gerard called melilotus "suckles" and "hony-suckles," as well, though these days we know another plant by that name.

In days past, sweet clover scented tobaccos and bedsheets. Since its mashed-up leaves also soothed inflammations, melilotus became known as plaster clover too. Its young greens were served in salads or steamed and its seeds, about the size of small peas, flavored soups. The dried leaves can also add a vanilla flavor to desserts. It is important that melilotus be completely dry, however. If fermented, coumarin turns into an anticoagulant (blood-thinner) and has caused hemorrhaging in cows fed improperly cured hay.

Alfalfa, AKA medicargo sativa or Chilean clover, has its dangers as well. Although it lowers cholesterol and sweetens the breath, its seeds contain the toxic amino acid canavanine that can cause miscarriages and reactivate lupus symptoms.

Red clover, trifolium pratense, is probably the most popular variety for medicinal use. Early patent medicines were often known as trifolium compounds, since they contained so much of the plant. It was part of Harry Hoxey's alternative cancer treatment that also included barberry, buckthorn, burdock, cascara sagrada, licorice, poke, prickly ash, and bloodroot. Although skeptics scoffed, all but one of Hoxey's herbs have been shown to contain anti-tumor compounds.

Red clover has four, including daidzen and genistein. It is also relatively high in tocopherol (Vitamin E). Clover is not recommended for cancers that are made worse by estrogen, however. Because the plant, like soybean, belongs to the legume family, clover has effects on the body similar to estrogen. That makes it a possible treatment for menopausal symptoms, but women with a family history of female cancers or persons with heart problems should probably avoid it.

An expectorant, clover also treats asthma, coughs, and bronchitis. It soothes skin diseases like eczema and psoriasis and fights several bacterias, including the one that causes TB.

Since I am a farmer's daughter, my recollections of clover are pleasant ones. Not only does the plant feed our livestock, it naturally fertilizes the ground in which it grows by fixing nitrogen in the soil.

I can understand why clover stands for "domestic virtue" and "fertility" in the Language of Flowers. And I can identify with Wilder who "thought the scent the best of all perfumes, and would carry a thick wad of the soft blossoms done up in a none too clean handkerchief. . ."

When you find yourself dreaming of those leaves of three--or four--consider it a good sign. Such visions are supposed to promise success in all aspects of your life. If, like me, you find these superstitions more amusing than convincing, you can still follow clover's example. Like St. Patrick or his symbol, make the spot where you're planted sweeter by your presence, and the world will remember you with pleasure as well!

Trifolium vulgare image is from Herbarium Blackwellianum, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.