The Four-Leaf Clover Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does

With St. Patrick's Day quickly approaching, we can't help but have luck on the brain — if for no other reason than to help us dodge the impending post-Paddy's Day hangover. One of the first symbols of luck that comes to mind is the shamrock — no, the four-leaf clover — wait, what's the difference?
Let's start with the latter. Unlike other good luck charms, the four-leaf clover got its rep for a pretty straightforward reason. As you probably learned for yourself at some point, four-leaf clovers are really hard to find, and that rarity is why we consider them lucky. They're actually the product of a genetic mutation in the regular white clover plant, but that hasn't stopped humankind from assigning meaning to their unique shape.
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A common superstition holds that each of the clover's four leaves represents either faith, hope, love, or luck. The 15th century politician and author John Melton even wrote, "If a man walking in the fields find any four-leaved grass, he shall in a small while after find some good thing." In other words, the four-leaf clover is quite the multi-purpose charm for good fortune.
But whatever you do, don't mix up your average four-leaf clover with a shamrock, a.k.a. a three-leaf clover. Only one of these is associated with St. Patrick's Day — and it isn't the one that's hard to find.
Legend has it that St. Patrick would use three-leaf clovers (which are pretty easy to find) to explain the Holy Trinity to those he converted, since he'd say that the leaves represented the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is probably a myth, but that hasn't stopped St. Paddy's Day and the shamrock from being inextricably linked.
That said, the Irish had imbued the shamrock with meaning before St. Patrick came along. Three-leaf clovers featured prominently in ancient Celtic rituals and folklore (triads and the number three were considered spiritually significant back then, too). This is why the shamrock appears outside of St. Patrick's Day decorations — like the four-leaf clover, it has a longstanding reputation as a pretty general source of luck.
Hopefully that clears up some confusion around the shamrock and the four-leaf clover. This time of year, you're probably best off keeping a three-leaf clover on display, but your search for the perfect four-leaf clover can resume after March 17.
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