Tuesday 12 December 2017

Double-Dutch shamrock puzzle

SIXTY years ago, the Manchester Guardian (as it then was) pitched a couple of green sprogs into a small bout of brouhaha about the provenance of what it described as sham shamrocks, suggesting as "one way to irritate the Irish" was to imply that "the plant they are wearing in their buttonholes is not the real shamrock at all".

Several dwarf clovers may go by the name, the newspaper said, but "many English books on botany (not identified) declare that the true shamrock to be the vivid green, three-leafed wood-sorrel, oxalis acetosella.

I confess to have heard this one in the past, and have a few prejudices of my own, although the following was new to me: "According to Ray Lankester (who he?) in one of his books on popular science, the common Dutch clover and its varieties were introduced into Ireland two hundred years ago from England and are not Irish at all."

And there was I, a couple of years back, from the bottom of the Iberian Peninsula, unconsciously adding to the stir-pot by boldly suggesting that the Bermuda buttercup , another wood sorrel oxalis pres-caprae, sprouting profusely about me, was what Patrick really had been holding aloft as a large-leafed highly visible lecture-aid to assembled Gaels explaining the meaning of the Trinity. It simply looked the part; I had no secret knowledge.

Old Irish manuscripts and various lives of the saint are not forthcoming about the national emblem, the word "shamrock" only appearing for the first time in English in Edmond Campion's Historie of Ireland in 1571. Subsequently it was recorded that the "wilde Irish" ate the plant for sustenance, Edmund Spenser noting that "the people feed on shamrocks when reduced to starvation."

At the end of the 19th Century a court clerk and amateur botanist, Nathaniel Colgan, took upon himself the task of sifting the claims of various trefoils as to the "true shamrock". Robert Lloyd Praeger, top man at the Dublin Naturalists' Field Club (still going strong), was encouraging. He said of Colgan, that "we ought to be grateful to him for clearing up the many muddles" about the shamrock."

For two years Colgan collected information and samples throughout the country – mostly from parish priests- planting specimens of lesser trefoil (t. dubium) and white clover (t. repens) for further study.

In the end there seemed to be a bit of a juggle between the species with, from 40 finalists, 20 were lesser trefoils to 16 white clovers. A close-run thing, it seemed.

The decision went to the trefoil and the prestigious Praeger weighed in with support saying the "actual diagnosis leads to a clover with small, neat leaves, a condition always fulfilled by the lesser trefoil." The Great Man's word appeared final.

And so, it has remained, in spite of the sorrel enthusiasts – and they are still out there, including me and my Bermudas, with yellow flower on long stalk and three boldly-green heart-shaped leaves, that I have imagined might have travelled to Ireland in more temperate times with other Lusitanians such as the arbutus. (Now it may be found only on the Scillies, off the English south coast.). But Colgan and Praeger rule the shamrock shore, OK?

Sunday Independent

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