Who has not at some time or other idly rummaged through a clover patch in search of the elusive four-leafed specimen? I have only ever found one example, and has it brought good luck? No, because after finding it I carefully wrapped the precious clover in my handkerchief and by the time I got home I had forgotten all about it – last seen spinning around in the washing machine. But where did the idea come from that a flour-leafed clover was lucky? Some will say that it is because when Eve was ejected from the Garden of Eden she managed to smuggle out a four-leafed clover. Others consider that the tradition began in the sixteenth century when it was noted in a book called, “Discoverie of Witchcraft” which was written in 1584. The OED considers that:
“The first English reference to the luck of the four-leafed clover dates from 1507: whoever finds one and keeps it reverently can know ‘for all so true as the gospell yt he shall be ryche all his life’ (Anon., The Gospelles of Dystaues, part 2, p. xv)”.
“1580 LYLY Euphues and his England (Works, 1902, II 142) For as salfe being is it in the companie of a trustie mate, as sleeping in the grass Trifole, where there is no serpent so venemous that dare venture”.
There is a general consensus that the four leaves represent hope, faith, love, and luck which I guess covers everything. Robert Herrick, the famous poet from the moorland village of Dean Prior wrote the following lines in his work, Hesperides, in 1648;
“Glide by the banks of virgins then, and pass
The shewers of roses, lucky-four-leav’d grass”
One slightly different tradition found on Dartmoor was that if a young girl found a lucky clover she would see her future husband before the day is out. This may seem somewhat fanciful but at one time most of the population Dartmoor lived in scattered farms and hamlets. In this light, travel was very limited and social groups were very small therefore if a girl did find such a talisman then the chances were that she was more than likely to see her future husband. .A traditional rhyme concerning this belief is as follows:
“Double ash and four-leafed clover
You are sure your love to see
Before the day is o’er”.
A similar belief attaches itself to a naturally growing two-leafed clover, in this case the finder must put the lucky clover in their shoe and the next person of the opposite sex they met would end up as their spouse.
To dream of a four-leafed clover was considered to be a very lucky omen and good fortune was sure to follow. The actual clover plant was also used as an aid in weather forecasting. If the leaves lift themselves up as if raising them above the flowers it is a sign of impending heavy rain and storms.
The other tradition of a four-leafed clover is that it has the power to protect from the ‘Evil Eye‘ and witchcraft, it also allowed the owner to see through any attempted deception. Some of the moorland farms would put a lucky clover in the milking parlour or byres to protect the livestock from any wisht spells that were intended to spoil the milk.
Today the many mystic properties of the lucky four-leafed clover have diminished as a Google search will reveal. Many companies are selling modified seeds that are ‘guaranteed’ to produce four-leaved specimens which means obtaining one is now a simple affair.
Putting the numerous mystical properties of the clover to one side, the plant has always been of great importance to the livestock farmer. Especially those with meadows on the moorland edges where the dairy cows grazed and the hay crops were taken. There are two important attributes associated with clovers and they are long tap roots and the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil. Long tap roots mean that in dry periods when the water table lowers the longer roots can reach down further than the shorter rooted grasses. It then follows that at such times when the grasses shrivel through lack of water the clovers flourish. Because the clover roots fix nitrogen in the soil it means that there is a free source of fertilizer for plant growth. Other benefits from a clover sward are that livestock show a greater liveweight gain and higher milk yields, additionally the animals benefit from the natural minerals that come from the plant. Providing a meadow mix is not too high in clover there are many natural and environmental pluses to be gained from the plant, hence the reason it has always been used as part of pasture management. There are some farmers that will claim to be able to tell the difference between lamb meat that comes from an animal grazing on clover swards and those that haven’t, apparently the clover meat is sweeter and more tender. The old adage of, “being in clover”, which means to live a life of ease and comfort directly points to the lush, nutritious properties of the plant. In 1808 when writing about the southern moorland farms, Vancouver notes that:
“The value of clover in laying land down for grass is well known and justly appreciated in this county… The quantity usually sown is, 6lbs of red clover; 2lbs of white Dutch (clover) and an indefinite proportion of from two pecks to two bushels of hievre (eaver – strain of ryegrass specific to southwest England) per acre“.
In later years the seed mixtures became more complicated, especially for hay meadows and Woods describes one such mixture that was used at Southcombe Farm in the 1920s; Italian Ryegrass, Eaver, Cocksfoot, Timothy, Meadow Fescue, Single Cut Clover, Cow Clover, Red Clover and White Dutch Clover. It is interesting to see that Cow Clover was being used, this particular species originated from North America and has been known to grow at altitudes of over 3,000ft making it ideal for the moorland climate. Mike Brown has transcribed an old farm lease from 1848 for Higher Godsworthy Farm in which the following clause was included:
“the last Barley or Oat Crop shall be seeded with not less than eight pounds of good Clover two pounds of White Clover two pounds of trefoil Seeds and eight gallons of good Eaver Seeds per acre…The Clover arrishes shall be cut but once and that only in the first year after Harvest without being manured as a lay field and in the last year or sooner determination of the said term shall be depastured with Sheep only after harvest the last Wheat Crop shall not exceed four acres”.
The old field names of many Dartmoor farms reflect the land which was rich in clover with such names as; Clover Close, Clover Meadow, Clover Park and Clover Plat. The actual name ‘clover’ stems from the Old English word – clæfre which also refers to the trefoil which can encompass many three leaved plants.
The other importance of the clover on the southern moor is that to the Buckfast honey bees who in August will follow the white clover flow. It has been noted that as the occurrence of white clover has diminished so have the honey crops. Brother Adam, the noted Buckfast bee-keeper commented how:
“Constant cold and unusually dry conditions until the beginning of July prevent the development of white clover and heather. Since 1970 there have been 10 years when we did not move the bees to the heath because there was no hope of a crop, in the previous 50 years this only happened once”.