I discovered this little Violet Wood Sorrel growing in my “Hidden Garden” this spring. I was hidden in among the other foliage and shyly peeking through the shadows. It only grows about 4” tall so you can see why it was a treasure to find. The day I discovered it, I felt lucky to have found it instead of stepping on the fragile plant. I didn’t realize that day that I had possibly been luckier than I thought. There is an argument that the Wood Sorrel is the original St. Patrick Shamrock. I don’t know about you, but I remember as a kid spending hours in the playground searching for a lucky shamrock or 4 leaf clover. Well, here I am – decades later and I have actual shamrocks growing in my own back yard!
Through my research on this little guy, I dug up an old manuscript from 1911 that is available on the web, “Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants in All Ages and In All Climes” by Charles Montgomery Skinner. This eBook will be most valuable while considering stories about my Kansas Wildflowers. I love to learn new things about the plants that I’m drawn to painting, it adds to their character in my mind and make the plant even more fun to paint.
So here is the argument from the early 20th century as to why the Wood Sorrel is actually the original Shamrock – Enjoy!
“The clover which we call wood sorrel was anciently a charm against snakes and other poison dealing creatures; and witches, too, would none of it. On going into fights soldiers would tie a sprig about their sword arms, or to the handles of their blades, that they might be secure from the foul strokes of enemies who had black and secret ways of killing. The Arabic word for the trefoil is shamrak, and Persia makes it sacred as emblematic of the Persian Triads. Our wood sorrel is white with faint ruddy or purple streaks in the petals. A pink variety appears in England earlier than the white, but, as in other flowers, the farther north we go, the more of white appears in the flower, bluebells being white in Russia, and red campion emulating the snow in Arctic lands. Wood sorrel is ‘the hallelujah’ in Spain and Italy because of its blossoming when the Hallelujah is sung, after Easter; the Welsh name it fairy bells; the Scots call it hearts and gowk's meat. Cuckoo sorrel is a common name for it in the British islands, where it appears when the cuckoo begins to sing.
“Among the plants one no longer eats is this same wood sorrel, once used as a salad. Sheep or field sorrel, which is of a different botanical family is still used as greens, though it is sharp to the untrained palate.
“The acid of wood sorrel (oxalic, from the botanical name of the plant, oxalis) is extracted as ‘salt of lemons,’ a chemical in some demand for commercial purposes, but a rank poison. Its leaves yield five per cent. of acid. Because of their heart shape the doctrine of signatures prescribed them as a remedy for heart troubles. The variety cultivated in Bolivia as oca has a tuberous root as well prized as the artichoke; another four leaved variety is used on Mexican tables; the Peruvian species, arracha, is also eaten, both root and leaf stalk.
“Wood sorrel is held by many to be the original shamrock, as its Persian name implies, although the plant commonly worn as such on the 17th of March, when all the bows to St Patrick is Dutch clover. It is a little disconcerting that the authorities are not a unit as to what a shamrock is. The Erse word seamrog is from seamar, three leaved, and og, meaning small. It occurs variously as seamsog, seamroge, shamrote, shamrock, shamrug, oge, and chambroch. The plant actually used by St. Patrick may have been Dutch clover, or trifolium repens, or trifolium minus, or wood sorrel. Early references to it in Irish literature represent it as a food plant, Campion, in history of the island printed in 1571, speaking of ‘shamrotes, water cresses, and other herbes they feed upon.’ Matthias Lobel, a Flemish botanist, tells of the purple and white trefoil, and says of the white variety it is good for fattening cattle, but that it is also ground meal for consumption by the peasantry. Spenser, the poet, also relates how, during the wars of Munster the escaped starvation by feeding on cress and ‘shamrokes’; and Fynes Moryson describes them as devouring herb of sharp taste, the acrid wood sorrel, one may fancy, ‘which as they run and are chased to and fro, they like beasts out of the ditches.’ If, however, the ditches contained water, the plant was probably cress, which still use as a garnish to our meat.
“The religious association of the shamrock, and its adoption as the emblem of Ireland, is due to an inspiration of pioneer of Christianity in that country: After his landing St. Patrick found his pagan subjects in deep trouble the Trinity. Preach and argue as he might, he could not prevail on them to accept its possibility till, looking down on the earth, in the course of one of his homilies, he chanced to spy the little divided leaf of the shamrock. It exemplified his point to a nicety. Stooping he plucked it and showed how, though a leaf, it was yet three leaves in one. After the Irish accepted Christianity, they used the shamrock as their sign, the three leaves typing in their formulary, the national virtues of love, heroism, and wit. The leaf was already in general use as a defense against witchcraft in St Patrick's time, and many a peasant plucked a trefoil before he ventured across the moors and bogs where banshees cried and fairies stole the souls of wayfarers. It was the power of the shamrock indeed, over poisonous and maleficent things, which enabled St Patrick to drive the snakes from Ireland, for he had only to hold it toward them to see them go scuttling into the sea.”
From “Myths and Legends of Flowers…” by Charles Montgomery Skinner (source link above)
Well, no matter where you come down on the argument – may the luck of the Irish be with you always.
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