A botanical path from St. Patrick to the Easter Bunny

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Have you ever questioned whether the “shamrock” plants sold at grocery stores and florists this time of year are really shamrocks? The word shamrock is not a botanical name, but a common one derived from the Irish seamrog, a diminutive form of seamar, which means trefoil, clover, or even honeysuckle. (Webster’s )

The “shamrock” plants you see in stores are oxalis, a plant of either South American or Mediterranean origin. Oxalis, also called wood sorrel, are probably called shamrocks because of the way they resemble clover.* And perhaps they make a more attractive potted plant than the weed that is more likely the true shamrock, as common in Ireland as it is in our lawns.

In 1893, Irish naturalist Nathaniel Colgan set out to determine which plant is the “true shamrock”; or, as he put it,”to take in hand the inquiry into the species of our national badge.” He asked both subscribers to the journal Irish Naturalist and the Catholic priests in all the Irish-speaking districts of the country to send him specimens of the plant they considered to be the true Irish shamrock. The winner of this contest was Trifolium repens, or the plant we know as Dutch white clover.

Being a fan of this common lawn weed, I was rather pleased to learn that. And it led me to want to grow some clover indoors. The first year I tried it I thought it would make a charming filler for our Easter baskets, but I discovered that it takes much longer to grow clover to an attractive leafy stage than it does to grow grass, so I missed the mark. This year, with Easter arriving so late (perhaps you’d like our handy Useful Calendar to help you keep track of such things), there’s just enough time to fill your basket with clover if you plant it this week.

If you want to try it yourself, here’s what you do:

  • Get clover seed where you would buy lawn grass seed, at garden centers and hardware stores. It’s not always easy to find this early, so you might check one of the larger garden centers if your neighborhood one doesn’t have it yet.
  • Scatter it thinly on the surface of some soilless seed-starting mix that you thoroughly moistened already, cover loosely with plastic to keep the moisture and warmth in, and place the pot or basket in a sunny window or under artificial lights. A little heat from underneath may help speed germination, so if you have radiators, set it on them until the seedlings emerge. Of course if you’re starting the seeds directly in a basket, you’ll want to line it with plastic first. And, as this will not have drainage, you’ll need to be careful not to overwater it.
  • If droplets of water collect on the plastic covering, loosen it or remove it for an hour or so to let some of the water evaporate. Too much wetness will encourage mold to grow and may rot the seeds before they can germinate. But you don’t want it to dry out too much either, so it’s kind of a balancing act at this stage. Mostly you want to keep the seeds covered and the soil moist until the true leaves come, which will be the second set of leaves to open. Once those are out, you can let the soil surface dry a bit between waterings.

One of the difficulties I have had was that I scattered too many seeds on the soil surface and found that they were much too crowded as they sprouted. Too avoid this, mix some seeds with an equal amount of the soilless mix before spreading them on the surface. Don’t bury the seeds, though, they need light to germinate.

And that’s about it. One of the advantages of growing clover rather than grass is that it’s less appealing to cats, but the Easter Bunny is sure to appreciate it. When Easter is over, toss the clover in your compost or just in the garden somewhere. Clover is a legume and will add a little nitrogen to the soil.

*Although I linked this sentence about oxalis to the Wikipedia entry on the topic, I did find several wonkish botanical sites confirming that the various species of the oxalis genus are either South American or Mediterranean. Wikipedia is a handy resource, but it’s always a good idea to check up on anything you find there.

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