The Science and Secrets of Four-Leaf Clovers (2024)

A four-leaf clover, recently found in the writer's backyard. (Photo by Aaron Hale)

Why four-leaf clovers are hard to find and tips on how to spot them

Athens, GA (March 11, 2022) - 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’s College of Agricultural and Environmental sciences. Pennetti’s work focuses on genetic engineering in turfgrass, 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.

A decade ago, UGA researcher Wayne Parrott and his research team identified the genetic markers associated with the four-leaf trait in white clover (trifolium repens), a prevalent species in yards across the U.S.

Parrott, a Distinguished Research Professor in Crop and Soil Sciences, also found the location of other genes that can add red coloring to 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 long 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’s CRISPR 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 website Share 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.

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.

Vincent Pennetti holds a white clover plant bred to bloom red flowers. (Aaron Hale/UGA)

The white markings on a four-leaf clover leaves make a square shape. Regular shamrocks look like a triangle.

Vincent Pennetti, a second-year UGA plant breeding and genetics student, found his passion for plant breeding by searching for four-leaf clovers.

The Science and Secrets of Four-Leaf Clovers (2024)

FAQs

Is there a trick to finding 4 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 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 are the odds of finding a four-leaf clover 1 in 100? ›

The probability of finding a four-leaf clover is 1-in-10,000. This defines the number of times that the event occurs (four-leaf clover) out of a total number of opportunities (all white clovers).

What does each leaf mean in 🍀? ›

According to pagan legends, each leaf has a meaning. The first would bring fame, the second leaf would bring us wealth, the third love, and the fourth health. But in the Christian and Catholic tradition each leaf corresponds rather to a virtue.

Do 5 leaf clovers exist? ›

As stated, clovers can have more than four leaves. 5-leaf clovers are less commonly found naturally than 4-leaf clovers; however, they too have been successfully cultivated. Some 4-leaf clover collectors, particularly in Ireland, regard the 5-leaf clover, known as a rose clover, as a particular prize.

Do 4-leaf clovers actually exist? ›

The four-leaf clover (officially known as Oxalis deppei) is a small plant with four distinct leaves. It's a rare variation of the common three-leaf clover, and because your chances of finding one with four leaves is about 1 in 10,000, they're considered lucky.

What does 🍀 mean in love? ›

are: loyalty, love, luck and hope for the last. 🍀 Wear this lovely multiway (can be worn may ways)

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.

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.

Is a 5 leaf clover rarer than a 4 leaf clover? ›

Statistical analysis website Minitab says the odds of finding a four-leaf clover on the first try are 10,000 to one, while the odds of finding a five-leaf clover on the first try are one million to one. Five-leaf clovers are also meant to bring more luck and financial success to the finder than a four-leaf.

Has anyone found a 6 leaf clover? ›

MONTCLAIR, NJ — Finding a six-leaf clover is the stuff of magic. But that's what happened to Sam Karp, 7, this week when he stumbled across a super-rare specimen in Montclair. According to Karp's mother, her son discovered the clover on Saturday in their backyard on Montclair Avenue.

What does a four-leaf clover mean in the Bible? ›

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.

What does ☘ symbolize? ›

🍀 Four Leaf Clover: The four-leaf clover emoji is commonly associated with luck and good fortune. It can represent a relationship where both individuals bring positivity and positive outcomes into each other's lives. It may symbolise a fortunate connection or a relationship that brings luck and happiness.

What is the luckiest clover? ›

The four-leafed clover, or “lucky clover”, is an uncommon variation of the three-leafed clover, and widely considered to be a symbol of good luck. Because they are a mutation, they are rare, and not found in the same abundance as the shamrock, and thus, considered lucky.

Where am I most likely 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.

How do you find the four-leaf lucky clover? ›

But four-leaf clovers exist, all right, and this is how you can find one: Look for a patch of clovers. 1 in 5,000-10,000 clovers is a four-leafed clover, so your chances are better if you're looking at a whole bunch of them. Make sure they're actually clovers.

What are the possibilities of finding a four-leaf clover? ›

According to The Weather Network, a four-leaf clover is rare, and difficult to find. A quick Google search said the odds are 1 in 10,000, but a 2017 study says chances are much better, with a 1 in 5,000 chance. Inside Science also reported 1 in 10,000 odds.

Why can't I find a four-leaf clover? ›

Trifolium is a Latin word that means "three leaf." That explains why 99.99% of clovers you find only have three leaves. Clovers with four (or more) leaves are the result of mutations or recessive genes in the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) of clover plants.

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