Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Four-leaved clover

Four-leaved clover, a clover having four rather than the usual three, leaflets, is an almost universal symbol of good luck.  Early in the twentieth century hundreds of postcards depicting such clovers were produced throughout Europe.

Segovia 113In Irish tradition such plants grew only where a mare gave birth to her first foal.  It seems that originally four-leaved clovers rather than bringing good fortune enabled people who possessed them to see fairies and break the powers of enchantment.  Such beliefs and tales relating to them have been recorded from Cornwall in 1881 and Northumberland in 1895.  Particularly well known is the Irish tale of the showman and the cock:

Years ago a great fair was held at Dingle.  A showman there had a cock walking down the street ahead of him pulling a ‘big heavy beam tied to his leg’.  People flocked to see this.  Then a man carrying a bundle of rushes [Juncus spp.] arrived and wondered what all the fuss was about; all he could see was cock dragging along a wisp of straw.  He thought the crowd had gone mad.  The showman overhearing what the old man was saying offered to buy the rushes.  The old man named his price, and once relieved of his load saw the wonder which others had seen:  ‘What happened was that the old man had a four-leaved shamrock [clover], unknown to himself, tied up in the load of rushes.  That’s why he saw different from what people saw.’

Versions of this story, which can be traced back to the thirteenth century, have been recorded throughout Europe from Scandinavia to Romania

Freak forms of white clover (Trifolium repens), which more usually has three leaflets, are the only four-leaved clovers which can be found in the wild in the British Isles, and sometimes these are cultivated for commercial purposes.  Also available commercially as four-leaved clovers are a number of Oxalis species which naturally have four leaflets.

Information derived from R. Vickery, A Dictionary of Plant-lore, 1995: 70-6; legend of the showman and the cock adapted from S. O’Sullivan, Folktales of Ireland, 1966: 25.

Images:

main, illustration on packing of ‘Lucky Look, four-leaved clover’, apparently produced in Germany, and sold in Putney, London Borough of Wandsworth, at 99p (reduced from £1.99), 20 February 2016; the plant depicted is Oxalis tetraphylla, iron cross, native to Mexico.

upper inset,  poster advertising the Spanish national lottery, Segovia, Castile & Leòn, Spain, March 2016.

lower inset, lottery advertisement, Córdoba, Andalucia, Spain, August 2021.

Updated 29 December 2021.