The Lucky 4-Leaf Clover: Facts and Myths

Is this a rare find or a common shamrock?

Closeup of a 4 leaf clover

Robin Smith / Getty Images

Irish shamrocks and four-leaf clovers evoke St. Patrick's Day and the green landscapes of the Emerald Isle. By historical definition, a four-leaf clover is not a shamrock. All shamrocks are three-leafed. Four-leaf clovers are rare in a garden since most clovers are three-leafed.

So, if folklore holds and you want a bit of the "luck of the Irish," then go hunting for a four-leafed clover, not a shamrock. Shamrocks are indeed linked to Ireland, but they are not big luck-bringers; instead, they hold religious significance.

What Is a Four-Leaf Clover?

Four-leaf clovers are a rarity, which is why if you find one, it is said you're lucky. They are a variation on the common three-leaf white clover (Trifolium repens). Researchers from the University of Georgia believe a combination of genes and environment makes them sprout an extra leaf. Exactly how rare they are is debatable. According to experts, the probability of finding one is 1 in 5,000 or 1 in 10,000.


Click Play to Learn the Difference Between Irish Shamrocks and Four-Leaf Clovers

What Makes a Four-Leaf Clover Lucky?

Mostly, the four-leaf clover is not a separate species, just a genetic anomaly. That's why people feel so lucky when they stumble across one.

The origin of four-leaf clovers bringing good luck stems from ancient Celtic, or Druid, priests. They elevated the rarer four-leaf clovers to the status of good luck charms that warded against evil spirits.

Facts and Myths About Four-Leaf Clover

  • Each clover leaf represents faith, hope, luck, and love.
  • The term "luck of the Irish" is related to four-leaf clovers growing abundantly in Ireland.
  • The four-leaf clover genes can also produce more leaves, although that is even rarer. According to Guinness World Records, the most leaves on a clover stem (Trifolium repens L.) is 56, discovered in Japan in 2009.

If you don't have time for searching for four-leaf clovers but want a "good luck plant," consider getting an Oxalis deppei plant. Oxalis deppei is widely sold called the "good-luck plant," because it bears a leaf that always has four leaflets and it looks like a four-leaf clover.

Closeup of multiple 4 leaf clovers on a white paper background

The Spruce / Margot Cavin

Four leaf clover
ALEAIMAGE / Getty Images

Significance of Shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day

So, what about shamrocks? How do they relate to St. Patrick's Day and Irish lore? Shamrocks are tied to the Roman Catholic religion, and St. Patrick was Ireland's missionary, bishop, and patron saint.

The number three is significant in the Christian religion as it represents the Trinity—God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Irish legend states that St. Patrick demonstrated the principle behind the Trinity using a shamrock, pointing to its three leaflets united by a common stalk. What is unclear is what plant he might have been holding.

The term shamrock comes from the Irish word "seamróg" or "seamair óg," which translates as "little clover." Historically, a shamrock looks like a clover with three leaves. Shamrocks could be medic, wood sorrels, and true clovers since they all have leaves of three leaflets.

Even among the Irish, there's no consensus about which plant is the authentic Irish shamrock. Since there is no authoritative version of the shamrock plant, it's tough to answer whether shamrocks are the same as clover. Five plants lay claim to the designation of an Irish shamrock.

  • Lesser trefoil, or hop clover (Trifolium dubium)
  • White clover (Trifolium repens)
  • Red clover (Trifolium pratense)
  • Black medic or medick (Medicago lupulina)
  • Wood sorrel: (Oxalis acetosella)

To confuse matters, various members of the Oxalis genus, with common names like purple shamrocks (Oxalis triangularis) and wood sorrel (Oxalis Montana), are sold as shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day. These clover look-alikes are unrelated to clover but are more easily cultivated as houseplants than real clover.

Shamrock close up
SaigeYves / Getty Images
Lesser Trefoil, Suckling Clover (Trifolium dubium) Shallow DOF
Lesser trefoil Mantonature / Getty Images
blossoms of white clover
White clover Stefan Rotter / Getty Images
Black medick Medicago lupulina small yellow wildflower close up
Black medick Whiteway / Getty Images
Red clover flower, Trifolium pratense
Red clover weisschr / Getty Images

Is Clover Beneficial to Lawns?

Surprisingly, the lucky clover is often considered merely a common lawn weed to be killed. In fact, until recently, it was standard practice to include clover seed in lawn seed mixes; it was valued as a built-in fertilizer since it can fix atmospheric nitrogen. Clover snatches nitrogen out of the air, bringing this essential fertilizer down to earth using its nitrogen-fixing bacteria that lives in nodes along the roots.

A clover lawn provides a low-maintenance landscaping solution to many environmental concerns about grass lawns. Beneficial clover can also accomplish the following for your lawn:

  • Reduces excessive irrigation: Clover tolerates drought conditions better than grass because it has long roots that enable it to access water at deeper levels.
  • Looks better longer: It has a lasting green color and stands up better to heavy foot traffic than grass.
  • Improves tough soil: Clover tolerates compacted soil better than lawn grass, and its long tap roots also help to aerate your soil.
  • Minimizes pollution: Clover lawns reduce the pollution caused by herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. In addition, because they usually don't need to be mowed as often as grass lawns, there's less pollution caused by lawnmower emissions.
  • Attracts pollinators: Clover puts out a mildly attractive flower that draws bees and other pollinators to your landscape.


Experiment in a small area of your yard with white clover (Trifolium repens) or micro clover to see if a clover lawn is right for you. 

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The science and secrets of four-leaf clovers. University of Georgia.

  2. Most leaves on a clover. Guinness World Records.

  3. Nelson, Ernest Charles. Shamrock: Botany and History of an Irish Myth. Boethius Press, 1991.

  4. Wisconsin Shamrocks. University Of Wisconsin Green Bay.

  5. Hadden, Evelyn. Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives. Timber Press, 2012.

  6. Agriculture and Air Quality. United States Environmental Protection Agency.

  7. Miller, G. Lawns. North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook, edited by K.A. Moore and L.K. Bradley, NC State Extension, 2018.