That four-leaf clover you found may not be a four-leaf clover

Jun 04, 2013 by Matt Shipman
Field of white clover. Credit: Makio Kusahara,

( —Are four-leaf clovers becoming more common? That was the question put to me by a reader recently. Apparently her kids are finding four-leaf clovers on a daily basis as they walk home from school. What gives?

While it is possible that her children are simply amazing four-leaf clover finders, it's more likely that the "four-leaf clovers" they are finding aren't clover at all.

When most of us think of clover, we think of white clover, or Trifolium repens. It's the extremely common clover, with little white flowers, that can be found invading lawns and open spaces around the world. (That's white clover in the image at the top of this post.)

White clover normally has three leaves, though mutations can result in four-leafed specimens. These mutations are uncommon, with only about 1 in 10,000 white clover plants having four leaves. However, in 2009, South Korean researchers reported that they were able to induce higher rates of four-leaf by exposing the plants to low levels of radiation during .

Since irradiated clover is unlikely to crop up alongside the sidewalks of central North Carolina, it is probably not responsible for the four-leaf clovers being found by our curious reader and her kids.

The imposter! Oxalis tetraphylla. Credit:

"However, there are also a number of plants that look like clover and have three or four leaflets," says John Dole, head of the Department of at NC State University. "In particular, Oxalis tetraphylla (also known as O. deppei) has spread from cultivation and I have seen it in various places, including the woods near my house. It has four and is actually known as four-leaf clover in some places."

O. tetraphylla is also known as four-leaf sorrel or Iron Cross, and it does look a lot like a four-leafed white clover. The primary difference is that the center of O. tetraphylla is often tinged with purple – and it does not produce the white flowers we normally associate with white clover.

I couldn't find any reports on whether O. tetraphylla is just as lucky as a four-leaf clover.

Explore further: DNA samples from fungi collections provide key to mushroom 'tree of life'

Related Stories

The more, the merrier: Mixing plant species for benefits

Oct 03, 2012

Researchers believe that the richness of plant species can boost primary production. But studies investigating the mechanisms behind positive plant biomass response to greater plant diversity have been lacking ...

Genetic differences in clover make one type toxic

Oct 01, 2007

That clover necklace you make for your child could well be a ring of poison. That’s because some clovers have evolved genes that help the plant produce cyanide – to protect itself against little herbivores, such as snails, ...

Clever plants chat over their own network

Sep 25, 2007

Recent research from Vidi researcher Josef Stuefer at the Radboud University Nijmegen reveals that plants have their own chat systems that they can use to warn each other. Therefore plants are not boring and passive organisms ...

Internet address attracts 13-million-dollar bid

Oct 21, 2010

An offshore holding company is out to have its way with for 13 million dollars. Clover Holdings Limited, based on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, made the top offer for the hot Internet ...

Recommended for you

Estuaries protect Dungeness crabs from deadly parasites

9 hours ago

Parasitic worms can pose a serious threat to the Dungeness crab, a commercially important fishery species found along the west coast of North America. The worms are thought to have caused or contributed to ...

An evolutionary heads-up—the brain size advantage

10 hours ago

A larger brain brings better cognitive performance. And so it seems only logical that a larger brain would offer a higher survival potential. In the course of evolution, large brains should therefore win ...

Our bond with dogs may go back more than 27,000 years

May 21, 2015

Dogs' special relationship to humans may go back 27,000 to 40,000 years, according to genomic analysis of an ancient Taimyr wolf bone reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 21. Earlier genome ...

Social structure 'helps birds avoid a collision course'

May 21, 2015

The sight of skilful aerial manoeuvring by flocks of Greylag geese to avoid collisions with York's Millennium Bridge intrigued mathematical biologist Dr Jamie Wood. It raised the question of how birds collectively ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.