Three-leaf clovers are commonplace. The four-leaf clover is an uncommon variation of the common, three-leaved clover. According to tradition, such leaves bring good luck to their finders, especially if found accidentally. According to legend, each leaf represents something: the first is for hope, the second is for faith, the third is for love, and the fourth is for luck. Actively seeking out a four-leaf clover will not bring you good luck. In fact, there is no such thing as luck, so even if you accidentally find one it’s not going to change your life.
An anonymous visitor to the site emailed me: “I found a 5 leaf clover… do you know anything about it? Is it good luck or bad luck?”
It’s just a mutation, like the four-leaf clover, of course. The four-leaf mutation is quite rare occurring once in about 10,000 specimens. Five is rarer still. But, according to this site: Five-leaf Clovers bring extra good luck and attracts money.
Nice, I wonder why the banks don’t breed these things and hand them out to their managers.
Of course, there is no such thing as “luck” and no number of leaves on a member of the more than 300-strong species of plants in the pea family Fabaceae is going to change that. Clover (Trifolium), or trefoil, usually means three-leafed, hence the surprise when one finds a specimen with four, five or more leaflets. The world record clover is an uber clover with 21 leaflets, although the Guinness record site says 18. Wikipedia, in traditional character has both figures on two different pages. Intriguingly, both the 18 and 21 leaflet specimens were found/grown by Shigeo Obara, a farmer in Japan’s Iwate prefecture.
Clover is found across the globe, most species are found in the temperate parts of the Northern Hemisphere, but many also occur in South America and Africa, particularly at high altitudes in the tropics. Clovers are small annual, biennial, and short-lived perennial herbaceous plants. To “be in clover” means to be living a carefree life of ease, comfort, and prosperity. But, if you’re due for a drug test make sure you haven’t been drinking milk from cows fed on clover. Clover has a small amount of morphine, which can end up in bottled milk. Eating clover itself can trigger blood and urine drug tests. It’s one more excuse for unlucky athletes caught abusing the system.
So, what is the origin of the notion that four-leafed clovers are lucky? According to legend, each leaf, or rather leaflet, represents something: hope, faith, love, and the fourth luck. It presumably has some association with the Irish “Shamrock”, which Saint Patrick used as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity of the Catholic fate. the Shamrock having four leaflets forming a single leaf by definition – God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Such metaphors are not uncommon in other religions where multifaceted deities are represented this way.
But, the Shamrock metaphor doesn’t explain the luck associated with the fourth leaflet, if anything one would imagine that a fourth leaflet would represent the Devil and so be bad luck. Although some say it is meant to represent God’s grace. According to the Wisegeek site, when Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, Eve is supposed to have carried a four leaf clover. “Curiously, the lore of the white clover plant is also associated with repelling snakes, though it didn’t seem to work in the Garden of Eden,” the site says. I suspect the snake-repellant aspect comes from the Irish St Patrick legend. Ireland famously has no snakes.
One important aspect of the four-leaf clover myth is that for it to bring luck you must find it serendipitously, there’s no point in searching for one and certainly no point in buying one; several websites offer for sale hand-picked four-leaf clovers! However, if you were a child in the Middle Ages who found a four-leaf clover you would have been given the gift of being able to see fairies and plant sprites…
It’s all superstitious nonsense, steeped in the mythology of religion, in dark times there is a deep-rooted (pardon the pun) psychological need to cling to such ideas of a better life beyond the grave and the idea of good luck associated with a symbolic plant simply reinforces such notions and reminds us of the deep-seated need in many people to postpone thoughts of their own mortality. Whoops…got all heavy there. Apologies. It seems that searching for four-leaf and beyond clovers is a perennial favourite among children and if it gets them out in to their gardens or the countryside on a long hike to search for the biggest then that’s no bad thing. Indeed, the exercise and fresh air will no doubt bring them luck by helping to stave off obesity and type 2 diabetes. Just don’t let them pick any dandelions…it’ll make them wet the bed, you know?
The original short version of this post originally appeared on Sciencebase – 2005-05-19