Did you know that the three-leafed shamrock is used as a symbol of Ireland? However, shamrocks are not a specific species of plant. In 1893 and 1988 botanists sent out a survey asking people from all over Ireland to mail in examples of what they thought was a ‘shamrock’. The botanists studied and identified the plant samples that were sent in. In both surveys the top five plants that were identified as a ‘shamrock’ were the lesser clover, white clover, red clover, black medick, and wood sorrel.
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The word shamrock comes from the Irish (Gaelic) word, seamair óg or seamróg, meaning ‘young clover’ or ‘summer plant’.
In the survey, all the types of plants that were sent in were from species commonly found in Europe, contradicting the widespread belief that shamrocks are a distinctive and unique plant that only grows in Ireland.
The first use of the word ‘shamrock’ in English literature appears in 1571 when Edmund Campion mentions “Shamrotes (shamrock), watercresses, rootes, and other herbes they feed upon”. This may be part of the confusion between shamrocks, clover, and wood sorrel. The words in Gaelic for clover and wood sorrel are similar: seamróg (young clover) and seamsóg (wood sorrel). While clover is not consumed as a food source, wood sorrel is.
The connection between St. Patrick and the shamrock starts to appear in literature around the 1670’s.