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Four-Leaf Clover Genes Count

Pamela Smith
By  Pamela Smith , Crops Technology Editor
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Four leaves (or more) may be considered lucky, but only if you find them. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- I've always considered myself lucky that I could spot a four-leaf clover. Mother recently passed along a few of my childhood books and clovers rained from them as I thumbed the yellowed pages.

On March 17, thoughts turn naturally to shamrocks. Their three leaves are said to stand for faith, love and hope with the uncommon fourth leaf is said to be a symbol of good luck.

Others might consider white clover to be a weed in a manicured lawn, but I don't see it that way. My bees love the sweet treat of the blossom and even as an adult, the thrill of finding a lucky clover never seems to grow old.

The fact that four-leaf clovers might be genetically different was the topic of a recent release from the University of Georgia. Vincent Pennetti, a graduate student studying turfgrass said it takes a combination of genes and environment for clovers to produce four leaves. Still, the precise way that happens seems to remain somewhat random, as luck would have it.

According to the release (…), University of Georgia researcher Wayne Parrott and his research team identified the genetic markers associated with the four-leaf trait in white clover, (trifolium repens). Parrott also found the location of other genes that can add red coloring to white clover leaves.

However, Parrott's work also found that the four-leaf trait doesn't always show up, 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." Sometimes the clover gets overly excited. I've found six, seven and even eight-leaf clovers.

While the genetics might be difficult and erratic when it comes to making your own luck, I've never doubted the genetic inclination to be able to spot the elusive clovers.

I've watched both of my children stop mid-stride and pluck them from the baseball outfield or the soccer pitch -- much to the chagrin of several coaches.

While I've always considered it is something of an art to locate multifoliate clovers, it turns out there may be some science to the hunt.

The white line inside the four-leaf clover tends to make a box or rectangle shape, compared to a standard three-leaf clover, which is more triangular. I've never had much luck purposefully looking for this pattern. I've come to believe that my eye must be constantly scanning for it, and therefore, I get luckier than most.

I've had others tell me that taking a hand and swiping across a clump of clover is helpful in the search. Sometimes multiple leaf clovers spring from a healthier stem.

Could we raise them? Gene-editing technology has opened the door for all sorts of advances in crop sciences. But Pennetti makes the point that while creating four-leaf clovers with the use of new genetic tools might be possible, he isn't in a rush to make that happen.

I agree. The surprise of finding a four-leaf clover still feels like a gift and special -- regardless of whether you believe they are lucky or not.

Ever found a four-leaf soybean? Here's some thoughts on why that can happen:…

Pamela Smith can be reached at

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