Trifolium repens, commonly known as white clover, is a perennial legume that originated in Europe and is now throughout the United States and Canada (United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service). The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture called it “one of the 10 most common lawn weeds” (John Boyd, Weeds of Arkansas). According to Robin Sweetser in The Old Farmer’s Almanac (March 8, 2021), the word shamrock comes from the Irish word Seamróg, which means “little clover” or “young clover.” Bess Lovejoy, writing for Smithsonian Magazine (March 16, 2015), provided a brief history of the “shamrock” and reported the first to link the term “to a recognizable plant was the English herbalist John Gerard, who in 1596 wrote that common meadow trefoil, also known as clover was ‘called in Irish Shamrockes.’ Since then, botanists have not universally agreed which species of clover.
The Encyclopedia Britannica reported several trifoliate plants may be called shamrock, including wood sorrel, white clover, suckling clover, and black medic. James Ebenezer Bicheno in 1830 claimed the true shamrock was the wood sorrel (Lovejoy). Bicheno based it on Irish literature that described eating shamrocks which described “sharp taste” that was like wood sorrel rather than clover. By 1892, Nathaniel Colgan of Dublin decided to “find a scientific answer.” He collected specimens from various counties around the country that represented ‘the real deal’ to locals, potted them and allowed them to bloom. His results showed evenly split between yellow and white in many counties, but Counties Cork and Dublin favored the black medick. In 1988, E. Charles Nelson, the horticultural taxonomist in Ireland’s National Botanic Gardens repeated Colgan’s study and of the 243 samples, yellow clover accounted for 46%, white clover for 35%, black medick for 7%, wood sorrel for 5%, and red clover for 4%, very similar to Colgan’s study. Nelson said,
…also demonstrated that there is no single, uniquely Irish species that can be equated with shamrock.E. Charles Nelson, as cited by Bess Lovejoy
Aside from the relationship to the shamrock and Ireland, what is the role of clover in agriculture and gardening? From personal experience on my hillside, it fills in bare spots in the clay-like soil, feeds butterflies and bees, and chokes out weeds. It readily co-exists with the St. Augustine grass that is prolific here. It is low to the ground, so is not readily disturbed by mowing and provides a lovely variety of green ground cover that is not upset by my walking on it.
The USDA says of white clover:
- most important pasture legume
- highly palatable, nutritious forage for all classes of livestock
- choice food for deer
- good erosion controlling cover
I like it, and it is welcome in my ARK!