Finding the 'real' shamrock
Once in a while it is nice to pay tribute to a plant that really only gets recognition one day of the year – the shamrock.
It was originally chosen as Eire’s national emblem because of the legend that Saint Patrick used this plant to illustrate the Christian doctrine of the trinity. The shamrock has also been considered by the Irish as a symbol of good luck since earliest times.
Each year as we near St. Patrick’s Day, we see a proliferation of shamrocks being sold as ‘the real thing,’ but in fact there is some dispute as to which variety is the authentic shamrock. The most common plant being sold as a shamrock is Trifolium repens, a type of white clover. According to my research, this particular plant is most widely accepted as the ‘real’ shamrock. Many seed companies, in fact, sell the seed as the ‘true Irish shamrock.’ They are usually sold in two-and-a-half or four-inch pots around St. Patrick’s Day, and they make a fine little plant for a sunny windowsill. They can also be planted outdoors almost anywhere, but the tiny yellow flowers are not of great ornamental value. But don’t forget that old legend of good luck!
A strong case can also be made for wood sorrel being the plant St. Patrick used. Oxalis acetosella is native to the British Isles and during Elizabethan times, was a popular culinary herb. The other hand, this hardy perennial herb makes a novel ground cover with bright green tri-leaves and solitary white flowers that bloom from April through July.
The most commonly sold oxalis for St. Patrick’s Day is the O. regnellii. It is a dandy houseplant with dozens of tiny white flowers that bloom persistently in spring and summer. Not really hardy outdoors, it makes a nice plant, however, for a sunny patio in summer. The secret to their care is to water them thoroughly, then let them dry out.
The newest oxalis to appear in the marketplace is a very unique purple leafed variety called. O. triangularis ‘Heartbreaker.’ It is an absolute beauty with its soft pink flowers contrasting nicely with its purple foliage. Heartbreaker is not very Irish, but it certainly is attractive.
One of the favourite shamrocks of most gardeners today is the ‘Iron Cross’ oxalis called O. deppi. This hardy little variety is a real beauty in light shade or sunny garden areas, and its rosy pink flowers make quite a showing. It may not be the real thing, but it is one of the best for our gardens.
Brian Minter is a master gardener who operates Minter Gardens in Chilliwack.
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