What Is the Difference Between Shamrocks and Clovers?

(Last Updated On: March 6, 2019)

In many places, the terms “shamrock” and “clover” seem to get used interchangeably. But this usage is not entirely correct. So, what is the difference between shamrocks and clovers? Let’s break down the differences between the two, and give a little history behind their use in St. Patrick’s Day imagery.

What Is the Difference Between Shamrocks and Clovers?

Clover, also known as a trefoil, is the common name for various species of plants in the Trifolium family. It is estimated that there are around 300 different species of clovers found throughout much of the world. Perhaps the most distinguishable feature of clovers are their alternate compound leaves, which usually have three smaller leaflets.

So what is a shamrock then? Well, shamrock is actually a Gaelic word meaning “little clover”. While “shamrock” is often used to refer to types of clovers found in Ireland, it should be noted that the term is not actually associated with any specific clover species. Traditionally, shamrocks have been used as a symbol of Ireland.

A clover must have three leaves to be considered a shamrock. If the clover has more or less, then it is not a shamrock. Hence, all shamrocks are clovers, but not all clovers are shamrocks.

Shamrocks vs. Four-Leaf Clovers

Over the centuries, the shamrock has developed into a proud symbol of Irish culture. It is also one of the central symbols of Ireland‘s greatest celebrations, St. Patrick’s Day.

Most clovers found in nature will have three leaves, but this is not always the case. Four-leaf clovers have been associated through common folklore with good luck, mostly because they are a rare genetic mutation of the standard three-leaf clover.

The mythology of the four-leaf clover actually predates the religious symbolism of the shamrock in Ireland, first being mentioned by the ancient Druids. According to folklore passed down through the ages, each leaf on the four-leaf clover represents something different. The first leaf is said to represent hope, the second represents faith, the third is love, and the fourth is happiness.

The History of the Shamrock

The word shamrock is derived from the Irish word “seamrog”—a term used to denote a young clover. Since there are more than 300 species of clover, shamrock has become more of a blanket term to refer to any three-leaf clover.

According to religious lore, Saint Patrick deemed the three leaves of the shamrock to represent the holy trinity of the father, son, and Holy Ghost. As such, in Irish culture, the shamrock connotes association to both Saint Patrick and the Holy Trinity.

Who was Saint Patrick? Patrick was a Romano British minister who arrived in Ireland in 432 A.D. Prior to Saint Patrick’s arrival, the people of Ireland had heard very little about the Christian religion or the gospel. Being the hardcore evangelizer he was, Saint Patrick determinedly traveled the countryside on a mission to convert the people of Ireland to Christianity. It turns out that one of Patrick‘s favored metaphorical devices was to use the shamrock as a teaching aid to represent the Holy Trinity. Saint Patrick has been associated with this shamrock ever since.

Today, celebrations of St. Patrick have spread throughout the world. On St. Patrick’s Day, people typically wear green as a symbol of the Catholic religion in Ireland, while orange represents the protestant population. However, before the days of religious divide, green was taken to be a symbol of the Emerald Isle, a popular nickname for Ireland. St. Patrick’s shamrocks also come into play in this color choice. There is also an association with leprechauns, which brings us back to the four-leaf clover.

The History of the Four-Leaf Clover

The leprechaun has become one of the most beloved Irish symbols of St. Patrick’s Day, due to the mythological associations with good luck. Leprechauns have been a popular fairy-like figure in Irish folklore for centuries, although up until the 19th century, they were believed to wear red and not the green color they are so typically associated with today.

Leprechauns are believed to carry both sacks of gold and a four-leaf clover, both of which are symbolic of luck and prosperity. They are also said to be guardians of the treasures rumored to be left by the Vikings toward the end of the 9th century. At the end of the rainbow, there is said to be a four-leaf clover garden where the leprechauns hide their gold. Therefore the rainbow is also an important symbol associated with the four-leaf clover.

Shamrocks and Clovers

Interestingly enough, while shamrocks and four-leaf clovers are both clovers, the shamrock being the more typical three-leaf clover, while the four-leaf clover is a more rare genetic mutation, they have very different mythological significance.

Nonetheless, both plants have come to be associated with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, albeit in different capacities. As such, they are often confused, but it is important to remember that the shamrock and four-leaf clover actually have very different meanings.

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