Four Leaf Clover

Mary Ellen Banks
Adams County Master Gardener

(3/2016) Last Spring a friend was posting an unbelievable number of pictures of 4-Leaf Clovers on Facebook. So I decided that checking my yard was in order. After wandering through the lawn, I was amazed to find about the same number of 4-leaf clovers, and more. The more consisted of the discovery of 5-leaf, 6-leaf, and even one 7-leaf clover. The Master Gardener in me wanted to know more, and more I found. Finding 4-leaf clovers is not just a matter of luck, even if they reportedly reward the finder with good fortune. Locating 4-leaf clovers, rather than luck or having St. Patrick over your shoulder, requires good observational skills and understanding a little science and genetics about white clover.

Four Leaf Clovers are members of the White Clover family, known as trifolium Replens, a member of the pea family. White clover is an important source of nectar for bees and honey. It is used as a cover crop which replenishes nitrogen in the soil and it provides feed for grazing animals and is baled and stored for winter feed. Some might not want clover in a manicured lawn, but for crop and vegetable growers, the presence of clover increases the number of bees and other pollinators which are attracted to both crop and ornamental plants adjacent to clover laden areas.

Clover is an intentionally planted crop plant, but is also a prominent plant growing unintentionally because its seed is easily spread to adjacent areas by wind, water, and human and animal carriers. In addition to being a nectar source for pollinators, its leaves are eaten by small foraging wild animals like rabbits and mice as. Clover is also used as a food source for small domestic animals like rabbits raised for food, or for rabbit and guinea pig pets. Anecdotally, people who raise free-ranging chickens often note that their birds seek clover as they browse.

Clover is a complicated genetic species which surprisingly has more chromosomes than a human! Work by crop specialists at agricultural centers, most notably at the University of Georgia, have found many interesting characteristics about white clover, but many of its attributes still remain elusive because of its genetic complexity. It is suspected that this clover has so-called "secret" back-door genetic coding that maintains the 3-leaf expression of its form, and it has genetic triggers which account for its leaf color variation and leaf shape. The exact gene which allows for more than 3 leaves has remained undetected, but knowledge about genetics does predict its existence, if not the reasons as to why the species may benefit from the one in ten-thousand ratio of 4-leaf clovers to the more common 3-leaf clover. Four leaf clovers do not appear on separate plants, but will be one of the leaves on the multi-stemmed plant, making it difficult to distinguish a 4-leaf among its 3-leaf partners growing together.

Observations about areas in which 4-leaf clovers are found reinforce a theory that the plant may be responding to environmental and soil stressors. It is not uncommon to find 4-leaf clovers growing in disturbed soil, sun-intense spots, and in dry areas. In fact, that is exactly the kind of space I found the multiple-leafed clover in my yard in areas at the margins of garden beds and the transition zone between yard and woods. These distressed areas were no doubt the result of hardscaping and lot leveling when the house was built. Searching in grassy areas where sidewalks or drives have been installed, or in spots at the edges of bare earth from people or animals shortcutting through a grassy area, will increase the likelihood that you will find a 4-leaf clover. It has also been observed that it is easier to find a 4-leaf clover when the grass is wet from dew or rain. You also need to be down on the ground to get closer to your subject, and running hand or fingers lightly over the tops of the clover plants will help separate the leaves from the co-mingled stems, and you can better identify which stem has a 4 or more leafed individual clover.

As Spring approaches, with grass and ground plants greener and brighter, try to increase your luck by knowing where to search for four-leaf clovers. Saving seed from the clover flower of a plant which has produced a four-leaf, allows you to try your hand at propagating clover plants that have an increased chance of producing four-leaf clovers. Good luck!

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