Native Shamrocks

Dateline: March 16, 2012*

This leaf is from a Florida native plant. Can you guess which one?

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, and while I am pretty much a mutt as far as heritage is concerned, there is Irish from both my Mother’s and Father’s sides of the family somewhere down the line. So, aye and begorrah, let’s talk Shamrocks. The Shamrock is a symbol of Ireland and a popular March holiday decoration. The association with Saint Patrick has roots in the Christianity when it is said that he used the shamrock to visually illustrate the concept of the Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit).

White Clover (Trifolium repens, Irish: seamair bhán) or Lesser Clover (T. dubium, Irish: seamair bhuí) are the likely candidates considered to be “shamrocks”. Both are introduced species in the U.S. The word shamrock is derived from the common Irish word for clover. Tri means “three”, so the shamrock has three leaves. Of 16 species of Trifolium listed in the University of South Florida Institute of Systematic Botany (ISB) Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants*, only two are considered native to Florida. Neither species is listed as occurring in my county (Osceola), but that just may be that specimens haven’t been submitted as yet. Those two are Carolina Clover (T. carolinianum) and Buffalo Clover (T. reflexum).

Yellow Woodsorrel looks close enough to shamrocks for me.

So, should my garden be left out of the wearing o’ the green? I think not. Here in Florida we have a perfectly good Shamrock substitute and right now it is prolific in my front meadow-type area. It is Common Yellow Woodsorrel a.k.a. Creeping Woodsorrel (Oxalis corniculata). This can be quite aggressive but it provides quick ground coverage and serves as an early nectar source for our buzzing and winging friends since it shows up in January when not a lot of other nectar plants are in bloom. It has pretty little yellow flowers that certainly bring brightness as the drab winter garden comes back to life. It’s yet another of those perplexing situations for me where this pretty flower is considered a weed to be killed and bahiagrass is considered a thing to be cultivated. Perhaps understandable if you own livestock (read further), but in the home landscape? PULLLEEASE! I’m still scratching my head.

Bright yellow against a pretty green, it is an early nectar source

According to USDA, this species occurs in a good part of North America, except for a few states in the upper mid-west. In the USDA database it is shown to be native in the U.S. states where it is found but Calflora disputes that and states that it is not native in California. Consider this as reasons to pay close attention to scientific names and to check with local authoritative sources since they likely know best what is affecting regional naturalized areas. What is good for one state may not be acceptable in another. California has many other very pretty choices in this Genus, one even considered rare. Do your homework beyond the USDA database when making planting decisions about what stays or goes!

Here in Florida there is another native Tufted Yellow Woodsorrel (O. macrantha), and several non-native Oxalis species but they don’t seem to live at my place.

In small quantities this Shamrock substitute is said to be edible and has ethnobotanical uses. Use caution since the foliage contains oxalic acid, which binds calcium leading to nutritional deficiencies in livestock and humans.

I don’t understand the urge to kill this in favor of grass

As luck would have it I haven’t found any four-leaf Woodsorrel…I guess that would be lack of luck. Seems the theory behind a four-leaf clover is that the first leaf stands for faith, the second represents hope, the third love, and the not-often found fourth is LUCK!

I’ll still feel lucky that I have a little something in the garden to humor me on this holiday. I hope you all enjoy Saint Pat’s Day in your beautiful wildlife garden, too.

*This is an update of a tale was originally published by Loret T. Setters on March 16, 2012 at the defunct national blog beautifulwildlifegarden[dot]com. Click the date to view reader comments.

**I use the ISB Atlas as the authority to determine nativity of plants in Florida.

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