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Four-leaf clover: Rare variation of a common, edible weed (and may be good luck)

White clover, a common edible weed in Illinois, is likely the species that sometimes produces four leaves, giving it the name four-leaf clover and supposedly giving the finder good luck. Tribune file photo

White clover, a common edible weed in Illinois, is likely the species that sometimes produces four leaves, giving it the name four-leaf clover and supposedly giving the finder good luck. Tribune file photo

That sometimes pesky white clover creeping into your grass in spring is the same plant that supposedly brings luck to those who find it in its rare four-leaved form.

White clover is the true shamrock, which comes from an  Irish word meaning clover. It  is only a few inches tall and has three lobed leaves; its flowers look like little white pompons.

White clover is native to Europe and Asia and was the species St. Patrick used as a symbol of Ireland, according to legend. He used the shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity–the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Each leaf also stood for faith, hope and love. The fourth leaf, if found on a clover, represented luck.

The shamrock plants sold in March are not white clover, but members of the Oxalis family, said Linda Curtis, a retired botany professor from the College of Lake County in Grayslake.

“The beauty of white clover is it is perennial, and spreads quickly,” she said.

“If you want a natural lawn, rather than a grass lawn, this is a good choice, and boxes of white clover/lawn mix can be bought to sow in to a lawn,” said Curtis. “Our lawn in Lake Villa is primarily white clover.”

Clover serves as food wildlife and also is used worldwide as an agricultural plant for cattle and horses. Curtis said butterflies sip on the nectar of the blossoms, so she asks her husband to forgo mowing unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Humans like clover, too. Curtis used to teach a class on edible  plants in Lake County and called white clover an “eat-the-lawn” plant.

The truth is, said Curtis, clover tastes better when it’s cooked.  Plus the blossoms can be collected and dried for tea. “If you want to make your own tea, then clip, tie, and hang from a hook in a dry place. With enough sugar and cream, any dried leaf might taste good as tea.”

Bees also imbibe white clover, sipping on the nectar from the flowers, said Jim Steffen, a biologist with the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.

Honey bees are also from Europe, so the two species evolved together, he said. Beekeepers who make honey may grow white clover or other crops such as buckwheat  to obtain different kinds of honey, Steffen said. “Usually white clover honey is pale-colored,” he said.

Bees, butterflies and livestock don’t care if there are three or four leaves on the clover they eat. But some people believe that finding a four-leaf clover, a rare occurrence, will bring good luck. And it’s not just white clovers that produce four leaves; it’s also a variety of other clovers, said John Hilty, a botanist from Illinois.

“One summer day when I was a kid, I searched for four-leaf clovers in a field of red clover near my grandmother’s house,” he said. “Not only did I find several four-leaf clovers, I also found a five-leaf clover and a six-leaf cover.” They were all red clover, not white clover, he said.

Illinois Natural History Survey botanist Greg Spyreas called the four-leaf clover “a developmental anomaly.”  As with other plant species, hormones and genetic controls sometimes go awry during development producing the anomaly, in this case, a clover with four leaves.

Spyreas doesn’t intentionally go looking for four-leaf clovers, but he said he did find one on his front lawn once. “I was really happy,” said Spyreas, who works for the Critical Trends Assessment Program managed by the Illinois Natural History Survey.

But as far as getting good luck, “My whole life has been good luck,” he said.

Curtis recalls sitting in the lawn as a youngster looking for a four-leaf clover. “And as luck would have it, after my first teaching  position at Lake Forest College, the day the students and I said our goodbyes, one student gave me a four-leaf clover,” she said.  She pressed it in a botany manual and still has it today.

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