Last week I wrote about buyin' the green, now, this week I want to do the wearin' of the green. What's more natural for the comin' of St. Patrick's Day?
Last year I bought several pots of green oxalis, called shamrock, to decorate my Irish table setting. They've gone dormant, they've flourished and they've bloomed little five-petal white blossoms. I decided to research shamrock, and now I'm really confused.
I found there is no such thing as a "shamrock" plant. The Irish word "shamrock" translates to the English word, "clover," with hundreds of varieties of clover. I grew up with pink/red marble-shaped clover heads from which bees loved to make honey. My father worked for the United States Department of Agriculture at our local extension offices in Michigan. He helped the farmers do crop rotations followed by a year of fallow growing with clover. Clover, besides being an abundant crop for feeding livestock, fixes nitrogen in the soil, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.
My shamrock had no such fluffy, marbleshaped blooms. Oxalis is the largest genus in the wood-sorrel family, Oxalidaceae. Oxalis and clover have similar leaves, being three, tri-, leaflets, folium. Trifolium. In Ireland, one of these four species can be worn as their common Irish shamrock. Lesser trefoil, seamair bhui; white clover, seamair bhan; black medic, dumheidic; and red clover, seamir dhearg.
Why does this matter? Because back in Celtic religious history, back to the Druids, three is their mystical number, and the trefoil was their sacred plant. Now here comes St. Patrick, who, when preaching, must have realized that when he plucked that cloverleaf, he subverted its symbolism to explain the Holy Trinity. The legend of him ridding Ireland of snakes is really a metaphor for driving the Druids, shaman and magicians of the Celts from Ireland. Ireland had become almost entirely Christian at the time of his death in 461 AD on either March 8 or March 9. Because they couldn't agree on which day, they celebrated on the sum total day, March 17. Ahh, on such are legends built! Another thing- St. Patrick wasn't Irish. He was born in Britain as Maewyn Succat in 387 AD. When he was 16, he was kidnapped by pagan Irish raiders and sold into slavery in Ireland. As Thomas Cahill states in "How the Irish Saved Civilization," "The work of such slave-shephards was bitterly isolated, months at a time, spent alone in the hills."
Raised in a Christian home, he didn't really believe in God. "But now hungry, lonely, frightened and bitterly cold," Patrick (Maewyn) began seeking God. Six years after his capture, he had a dream about his freedom, and became a fugitive slave, walking 200 miles to the English coast, where he boarded a ship for home and family. Eventually, he entered a monastery, was ordained as a priest, then became a bishop. The name, St. Patrick was given to him later in life by Pope Celestine. Thirty years after leaving Ireland, he begged to be sent back to Ireland. He was, and the rest is history!
Oxalis regnelli is "an American idea," to quote a retired extension horticulturist, "foisted upon the horticulturally uninitiated by the greenhouse industry." The green, three-leaved plant is showy in a pot and it may come from the wrong continent, South America, but it performs well. Many agree, the original shamrock may have been trifolium repens, a white clover, and don't even get me started on the lucky four-leaf clover. I also have the charming, colorful purple leaf oxalis.
It's not true that shamrocks will grow only in Irish soil. They grow worldwide; they just don't like wet soils. Give them a bright filtered light and sandy, good draining soil. "Meltout" in its center is caused by lime buildup, so if practical, use rainwater. Love my rain barrel! Don't be alarmed when they decide to go to sleep they need this dormancy - sometimes twice a year. Some people like to keep them going all year around, but a good rest period keeps them vibrant.
The shamrock is not Ireland's official emblem, the 12-stringed harp is. However, the green trefoil is registered under international conventions as the symbol of Ireland. The custom of wearing a shamrock dates back to the late 1600s. It was fashionable from the 1800s on, to use shamrocks as dcor on buildings, furniture and clothing, with the real explosion of using it, coming after 1860. Nowadays, the Irish are more restrained and confine the shamrocks to souvenirs. However, the shamrock, or green trefoil, is universally recognized as a badge of the Irish.
I can't say, "Will the real shamrock please stand up?" but I can leave you with the traditional Irish blessing:
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rains fall soft upon your fields,
And until we met again,
May God hold you in the hollow of his hand.
And may I add my own-May the luck of the Irish inhabit your gardens! Blessings.
Joyce Comingore - Master Gardener; President of the James E Hendry Chapter of the American Hibiscus Society, and National Board Member; member of the Garden club of Cape Coral.