The science and secrets of four-leaf clovers | Around the Yard and Garden (2024)

If you’ve ever scanned a field looking for a lucky four-leaf clover, then perhaps you’ve wondered why they are so rare.

It turns out scientists aren’t exactly sure about the mysteries of four-leaf clovers, either.

“The jury is on out why,” said Vincent Pennetti, a second-year doctoral student at the University of Georgia’sCollege of Agricultural and Environmental sciences. Pennetti’s work in theInstitute of Plant Breeding, Genetics and Genomicsfocuses on genetic engineering inturfgrass, but he’s also an amateur clover breeder who has gotten pretty good at spotting them in the wild (see more below).

For clovers to produce four leaves, Pennetti said, it takes a combination of genes and environment, but the precise interplay of those two and other factors is still unsolved.

The science and secrets of four-leaf clovers | Around the Yard and Garden (1)

A decade ago, UGA researcherWayne Parrottand his research teamidentified the genetic markersassociated with the four-leaf trait in white clover (Trifolium repens), a prevalent species in yards across the U.S.

Parrott, a Distinguished Research Professor incrop and soil sciences, also found the location of other genes that canadd red coloringto white clover’s leaves.

But even with markers that could be associated with the four-leaf clover trait, it isn’t exactly easy to “make your own luck.” The four-leaf trait doesn’t always show up when expected, even if the genes are present.

“It’s been a really tough trait to do,” Parrott said. “If daylight or temperatures aren’t right, you won’t see it.”

But at other times, five, six, or as many as eight leaves will show up.

Becoming a four-leaf clover breeder

Pennetti’s longtime fascination with clover started while playing little league in Long Island, New York.

“My parents really wanted me to be good at baseball,” Pennetti recalled. “I wasn’t. I am not built for sports.”

So coaches sent him to the outfield, where he would be less of a defensive liability.

“No one was hitting there,” he said. “I had nothing to do. I was just standing around looking for four-leaf clovers.”

But he wasn’t having any luck at that either.

Eventually, as a high schooler waiting for the bus, he finally spotted a pair of four-leaf clovers.

And he wanted more.

That’s around the time he learned about Parrott’s research concerning multifoliate clover genetic markers at the University of Georgia. Pennetti reached out for advice from Parrott, who in turn gave him pointers on plant breeding over Skype.

Pennetti has been breeding clover ever since. That passion eventually brought him down to Georgia to pursue his doctorate.

While his research focuses on creating better turfgrasses for the consumer market, he remains committed to white clover. He tends to a variety of ornamental clover plants at a UGA greenhouse that have been bred for decorative shapes and leaf markings; some even grow pink flowers

Finding a four-leaf clover isn’t easy, but one UGA doctoral student is on a mission to research, find, and breed this mysterious plant. Pennetti’s personal line of clover, bred from some of the first plants he discovered nine years ago, grow in his basem*nt under an LED lamp. As a side hustle, he preserves and sells four-leaf clovers on Etsy for people who want them as novelties or wedding gifts.

“One guy last year ordered $300 worth of clovers just to give out at a senior living community for St. Patrick’s Day,” he said.

Could four-leaf clovers be genetically engineered?

Gene-editing technology has opened the door for all sorts of advances in crop sciences—not to mention the fight against deadly diseases.

With enough research funding and today’sCRISPR technology, Pennetti said, it could be possible to create a four-leaf clover in the lab one day. But Pennetti doesn’t want to be the one to make that happen.

“It would be kind of fun, but on the other hand, I don’t want to ruin the search for everybody else,” he said. “It is nice that it’s still kind of a mystery.”

How to find a four-leaf clover

There is only one four-leaf clover for every 5,076 three-leaf clovers, according to an estimate from the websiteShare the Luck. But with some strategy and a lot of patience, it is possible to find your own lucky charm. Over the years, Pennetti has gotten good at spotting them.

The science and secrets of four-leaf clovers | Around the Yard and Garden (2)

Here are a few tips for novice four-leaf clover hunters.

Find a break in the pattern

Finding multifoliate clovers is really just a “pattern game,” said Pennetti. Looking at a patch of clover, you’ll see the typical three-leaf plants create a triangle shape with the whites of their leaves.

Look for that triangle pattern to be interrupted.

“Most of the time, it’s going to be three-leaf clovers stuck right next to each, not a four-leaf clover,” he said. “But sometimes, it’s a square. And that’s actually a four-leaf clover.”

Grab a good vantage point

It’s best to hunt for four-leaf clovers on your feet. That will give you the distance from the ground you need to spot breaks in the pattern when trying to distinguish from your typical shamrock.

“Never go on your hands and knees,” Pennetti said. “You’re going to waste so much time.”

Keep moving

Don’t linger in any one patch of clover. Instead, keep moving during your search.

“Don’t spend too much time in one area,” Pennetti said. “It’s either going to be there or it isn’t.”

Happy hunting. And good luck.

Aaron Hale is an executive editor for strategic marketing at UGA.

The science and secrets of four-leaf clovers | Around the Yard and Garden (2024)


What is the science behind 4 leaf clovers? ›

Whereas human chromosomes come in matched pairs, clovers have four copies of each chromosome per cell. The gene responsible for four-leaf clovers is 'recessive', which means that the plant will only produce four leaves if it has the four-leaf gene on all four chromosomes, which is a rare occurrence.

What is the secret to finding four-leaf clovers? ›

In a dense patch of white clover, a four-leafer lurks in an area of less than fifteen square feet (on average). Find a thick patch and slowly brush your hand over the surface. The center of a four-leaf clover has a different shape and the fourth leaf is often smaller than the others.

What is the superstition about the four-leaf clover? ›

According to the legend, the leaves of a four-leaf clover represent hope, faith, love, and a fourth for good luck. A common belief during the Middle Ages was if someone carried a four-leaf clover, they would have the ability to see fairies.

Why does my yard have so many 4 leaf clovers? ›

Another reason for clovers with four leaves instead of three is due to plant breeding. New strains of the plant are biologically bred to produce more four leaf clovers. I guess that could explain why there seem to be lots more, or at least a lot easier to find.

What kills four-leaf clovers? ›

If the clover is already on your lawn, you'll need a post-emergent weed killer. Use a systemic herbicide for broadleaf weeds such as triclopyr, dicamba, MCPP, 2,4-D, fluroxypyr, and quinclorac.

What is the metaphysical meaning of 4 leaf clover? ›

Each of the four leaves is traditionally associated with hope, faith, love, and luck. This symbolism imbues the clover with a sense of magic and mystery, elevating it from a simple plant to a cherished emblem of positive values and aspirations.

Where is the best place to find a four-leaf clover? ›

Walk around areas with a lot of leaves and trees, like parks and trials, to seek out clover patches. If you have a backyard, look there as well. Clovers often grow in lawns.

What happens if you pick a four-leaf clover? ›

Four-leaf clovers, aside from being considered good luck, are said to be symbols of faith, love, hope and good fortune. Unlike shamrocks, which have three leaves, four-leaf clovers aren't considered religious symbols, especially not in Ireland.

Why have I never found a four-leaf clover? ›

You have to be really lucky to find one! Although there are various types of clover, the type we're talking about when discussing four-leaf clovers is known as Trifolium repens, or white clover. Trifolium is a Latin word that means "three leaf." That explains why 99.99% of clovers you find only have three leaves.

What does the Bible say about the four-leaf clover? ›

Not only does the significance of the clover relate to Saint Patrick's analogy, but it also references the bible. “When Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden, Eve snatched a four-leaf clover as a remembrance of her days in Paradise” (Wallechinsky).

What does the four-leaf clover mean in Christianity? ›

The four-leaf-clover meaning became intertwined with Christianity, so the first three leaves came to represent faith, hope and love, and the fourth leaf, God's grace or luck.

Are 4 leaf clovers evil? ›

The four-leaved clover has been a symbol of good luck and fortune for centuries, but how did it come to be? The belief in the luckiness of the four-leaved clover can be traced back to ancient Druids who believed that it had mystical powers and could ward off evil spirits.

What is the science behind the four-leaf clover? ›

Like every other trait on every other living thing, a clover's lucky fourth leaf sprouts from DNA. But the clover genome is surprisingly complicated, and finding the genes responsible---and under what conditions---for the four-leaf mutation is a still-unsolved biological puzzle.

What does it mean if you have a lot of clover in your yard? ›

Lack of nitrogen in the soil: Clover thrives in nitrogen-poor dirt. Over-fertilization in one area: In this case, clover may thrive in one area while grass grows in another.

What do you do when you find a four-leaf clover? ›

The fourth leaf can be smaller, or a different shade of green, than the other three. If you're the superstitious type, give your four-leaf clover to someone else. It's said that this will double your good luck.

Why is a 4 leaf clover special? ›

The Druids (Celtic priests), in the early days of Ireland, believed that when they carried a three-leaf clover or shamrock, they could see evil spirits coming and have a chance to escape in time. Four-leaf clovers were Celtic charms, presumed to offer magical protection and ward off bad luck.

Can humans eat four-leaf clovers? ›

What you might not know about this so-called "lucky plant" is that in addition to being a common ground covering, clover is often used as a medicinal herb. Clover is both edible and potentially beneficial to your health. You can eat the leaves in salad or boil the blossoms to make tea.

How rare are 4 and 5 leaf clovers? ›

It's estimated that you only have about a 1 in 10,000 chance of finding a four-leaf clover. That's already a pretty rare find, so imagine how much rarer a five-leaf clover must be. Some estimate that your chances of finding a five-leaf clover is about 1 in 100,000!

Can you grow four-leaf clovers? ›

Only one shamrock in every few thousand has more than three leaves, notes Minori Mori, a 12th grader at Meikei High School in Tsukuba, Japan. Some companies sell clover seeds that will grow into plants that are more likely to produce four leaves. But even in plants grown from these seeds, four-leafed ones remain rare.

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