Some thoughts on the Shamrock of our well-loved Saint; Pádraig, Patrick or Paddy!

Not a lot has been documented of the life of St Patrick, other than many legends associated with the places to which he is alleged to have travelled, but that doesn’t stop his name being celebrated across the globe 17 centuries after his heyday.

He was reputed to have been sent by Rome to refute the heresy of the 4th century monk, Pelagius- who was reported to have been a large and proud man of ‘goliath’ sized proportions and to have:

“Walked at the pace of a turtle, having being made heavy by Scottish porridge” ~ Haha!

A pilgrimage is made to the Saint every year on the 31st July to a mountain where it is said St Patrick spent the whole of lent (in County Mayo). There a ceremony is performed and the hymn, ‘The breastplate of St Patrick’ recited for protection. The ceremony uses the Celtic tradition of Caim a sacred circle of protection said to contain the power of god.

He has strong connections with both Scotland and Ireland, and ‘battled’ against the Picts in early Scottish Christianity. He was clearly liked enough by the Scots to have numerous sacred sites and places named after him, although is best known as the Patron Saint of Ireland.

The Shamrock of St Patrick?

The Trifolium (clover) species are typically 3-leaved, and because of this, were said to represent the Christian Holy Trinity. St. Patrick is often depicted as holding the ‘shamrock’ in his left hand while preaching (presumably about the Holy Trinity) and is said to have driven the ‘snakes’ (heathen religions) out of Ireland with a ‘cross in one hand and a bunch of shamrocks in the other’

The word Trifolium itself means ‘three-leaved’ and it is believed that the shape is similar to a pre-Christian Celtic symbol, the triskele- later adopted by the Christian church to represent the Holy Trinity.

Carving of a triskele at Newgrange, Ireland

To this day, it is commonly believed that the Lesser Clover (seamer bhuí) is the shamrock associated with St. Patrick. However, in the 16th Century, before the first artistic depictions of St Patrick and the shamrock, Gerard reports that the species Trifolium pratense, was the shamrock of the Irish- meaning the red and white clover, commonly known as ‘three-leaved grass’.

Trifolium pratense - Red Clover, may have been the original shamrock of St Patrick!

Perhaps this clover is more fitting of a Saint who is reported to have ‘performed a thousand miracles’ and who’s prayer was recited by the infirm and suffering of any ailment. As this particular plant has a strong history of medicinal use in both Irish and Scottish tradition.

Here are some health benefits of taking red-clover:

• Red clover has a high content of isoflavones, which act like oestrogen in the body (phytoestrogens)- and therefore are used to regulate hormones holistically.

• Red Clover is used by herbalists as an alternative to HRT in menopause, for Hot Flashes, for breast health and menstrual disorders.

• It’s mineral content is believed to help prevent osteoporosis.

• It’s a powerful cleanser of the lymphatic vessels, and has been shown to reduce tumors and hard swellings, especially of the ovaries and breasts.

• Its not just for women either, its a powerful healer and promotes healing in wounds, especially ‘old wounds’ that don’t heal. Clover leaves and flowers were used to clean and heal external wounds.

• Coughs, colds, sore throats can also benefit from the healing properties of red-clover, by gargling with the tea, or drinking it. (it’s anti-inflammatory which probably helps!)

• Persistent skin problems, such as eczema and acne are often seen to clear up, when all else fails, and you will see red-clover in a lot of skin supplements and products for this reason.

• Children with whooping cough respond well to drinking the tea. (although if your child has whooping cough, you *must* also see a doctor as it is a Public Health notifiable disease!)

This is a really nutrient rich plant that is easy to get hold of, and great for female health, but also a general all round healer for use by everyone.

Some concerns regarding the potential interaction with phyto-oestrogens and breast cancer treatment have been raised in recent years. These are mostly theoretical, with no clinical evidence to support them. However, if you are suffering from breast cancer or in remission, please consult your specialist before taking Red Clover.

The Four Leaved Clover. Lucky for some?

The clover and it’s lucky connections were obviously well known enough to either the Scots or Irish settlers of the Charleston colonies in Outlander, to have a restaurant named after the plant in The Charleston Royal Colony of South Carolina, (Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, Diana Gabaldon)

“Dottie looked a little dubious, but thus urged, she took a deep sniff of the atmosphere, to which the scent of fresh-baked bread had just been added, as the serving made came in with a great loaf and a dish of butter with a four-leafed-clover (this being the name of the establishment- stamped into its oleaginous surface.”


Why is it that St Paddy’s day has come to be associated with the FOUR leaved clover, instead of the 3 leaved one, historically linked to his teachings of the Christian trinity?

Well, here’s a couple of ideas that as a botanical enthusiast, I have pondered over time:

Either the the Four-Leaved-Clover is lucky, simply because it is ‘unattainable’. To hold a true Clover with four leaves, is botanically impossible, as the clover genus, by it’s description ‘Tri-folium’ only ever has 3 leaves. So, if you are the owner of this 4 leafed wonder, then you are indeed a fortunate person indeed.


Perhaps the four-leaved clover refers to Oxalis or ‘wood sorrel’ and it’s clover like leaves.

In St Patricks time, this was also known as ‘Soorach’ – because of it’s acidic sharp taste. This is partly owing to the Vitamin C content, which would make it a vital food source to prevent Scurvy, which is the nutritional vitamin C deficiency, common in ancient (and not so ancient times).

As Claire teaches Jamie, eating green leafy plants was essential to the diet to prevent scurvy, in times when this was a scourge of the malnourished societies of our past.

So , Perhaps the 4 leafed clover was a reference to the Wood Sorrel, (which is not a clover, but has four leaves), and the good fortune it brought in terms of nutrients and health benefits!

I suppose, we will never know. But in any case, to all of you, a very Happy St. Patricks Day!

☘ ☘ ☘ ☘

Slàinte leat- In good health!

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