Shamrock 'hit hard' by harsh winter weather

CLOVER AND OUT: SHAMROCK WAS “hit hard” by the severe winter weather and “won’t be easily found” this week, according to a leading…

CLOVER AND OUT:SHAMROCK WAS "hit hard" by the severe winter weather and "won't be easily found" this week, according to a leading botanist.

Dr Declan Doogue of the Royal Irish Academy said the shamrock was “only getting going” because, like other plants, its growing season had been “delayed by frost damage”.

But most of the fresh shamrock worn on St Patrick’s Day will come from nurseries rather than being gathered in the wild. And despite the plant’s enduring status as a national symbol, flora experts admit there is public confusion about precisely which plant constitutes an authentic shamrock.

When asked to define shamrock, Dr Úna Fitzpatrick of the National Biodiversity Centre said: “It depends on who you speak to – there’s a bit of controversy about what it actually is.”


Dr Doogue, an honorary research fellow of the National Botanic Gardens, said there were various species which people called shamrock but the "official" version was the Trifolium dubium(lesser trefoil), a type of clover found in "unimproved grassland" of which there is little left in Ireland.

Dr Doogue said modern farming methods and the loss of traditional hay meadows had “engulfed” the national plant’s territory, which was “a disaster from a wildlife point of view”.

Despite the loss of its habitat, he said it could still occasionally be found “in short grass and on waysides, even in some parts of Dublin”. It thrives best, he added, “in a sunny, free-draining site”.

He hoped the Taoiseach had been able to find a supply of Trifolium dubiumto present to US president Barack Obama at the White House on St Patrick's Day.

Dr Doogue added that the "lush grasslands" favoured by farmers for silage-making was encouraging the spread of different varieties of clover and "the main culprit" was Trifolium repens(white clover). He said this was probably what most people would wear on Wednesday due to the difficulty in finding the real thing.

To complicate matters, Prof John Parnell, curator of the herbarium at Trinity College Dublin, said a third plant, Medicago lupulina(black medic), which has three green leaves but is not a clover, was also "often sold and worn as shamrock".

But the botanists all confirmed that, despite popular belief, shamrock was not “remotely exclusively Irish” and could be found in Britain and throughout northwest Europe.

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons

Michael Parsons is a contributor to The Irish Times writing about fine art and antiques