Like England’s Rose and Scotland’s thistle, the shamrock is an iconic symbol of Irish heritage and culture. It appears on the flag of Erin Go Bragh, meaning “Ireland Forever”, was utilized by St. Patrick as a symbol of Irish identity, and can be found on the uniforms of Irish sports teams, and on the tail of the national airline, Aer Lingus. Any Saint Patrick’s day event anywhere in the world is incomplete without it. But although the use of the shamrock as Ireland’s national symbol dates back thousands of years, there appears to be a confusion about what constitutes the traditional shamrock; in particular, it appears to often be confused with the four-leafed clover.

Earlier this month, the campaign to reelect Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States added itself to the list of offenders who had confused these two plants, when it released a series of Irish-themed t-shirts and merchandise ahead of St. Patrick’s day. The green shirts added an apostrophe to O’bama, but also a four-leaf clover where a traditional shamrock should have resided. The problem was corrected after the error was pointed out by observant Irish customers.

The word shamrock comes from the Gaelic word Seamrog, meaning “little clover”. A clover is the commonly used name for any number of plants belonging to the genus Trifolium, meaning “having three leaves.” Even among botanists, there is some disagreement on what species is the “true” shamrock, but most agree that the White Clover is probably the original shamrock of Irish symbolic heritage. While trying to convert the Irish into Christians, St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the holy trinity with each leaf representing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The three leaves of a shamrock are also said to stand for faith, hope and love. A fourth leaf is where we get the luck from. The four-leafed clover, or “lucky clover”, is an uncommon variation of the three-leafed clover, and widely considered to be a symbol of good luck. Because they are a mutation, they are rare, and not found in the same abundance as the shamrock, and thus, considered lucky. The traditional Irish symbol of a shamrock does not include the fourth leaf.

Before you venture off for your Ireland vacation, or start stocking up for your St. Patrick’s day celebrations, take a good look at the symbol on your “Kiss Me I’m Irish!” pin. Does it have four leaves instead of three? Knowing the difference between a shamrock and a four leaf clover could spare you the uncomfortable experience of having to explain your case of mistaken identity when it comes to the historical and traditional symbol of Ireland.

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