Why are four-leaf clovers lucky?

You're lucky indeed if you find a four-leaf clover -- your chances of finding one are one in 10,000.
You're lucky indeed if you find a four-leaf clover -- your chances of finding one are one in 10,000.
Dave and Les Jacobs/Blend Images/Getty Images

One day in 2014 in Rochester, New York, a woman named Sandra rode her bike into town to do some shopping. She locked up her steed, shopped and came back to find it gone. Devastated, she reported the loss to the cops, who warned her the chances of recovery were slim.

Later that day, at a coffee shop, she spotted another policeman and decided to tell her sad tale again. Promising to have a look, the cop hopped on his bike and went off on patrol, but not before Sandra had given him a four-leaf clover to boost his chances. Within minutes, the officer had found her wheels. Never, he reported, had he recovered a missing item so quickly. The clover had apparently done its work [source: Miltner].

Nearly as interesting as the happy outcome of this story is the fact that Sandra had a spare four-leaf clover on hand. It was no accident — she collected them. In fact, she had so many she made a habit of giving them away. In this, she's not as unusual as you might think: The Guinness World Record for the largest collection of four-leaf clovers goes to one Edward Martin of Cooper Landing, Alaska, who has amassed more than 100,000 of them [source: Guinness World Records]. That's truly astounding when you consider the fact that your chances of finding a four-leaf clover are one in 10,000! [source: Olsen]

Everybody knows that four-leaf clovers are supposed to bring good luck, and clearly some people really want to pile it on — but just what is it that makes them so lucky?

In the Clover

This 16th-century baptismal font features three-leaf clovers, which Christians use to symbolize the trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
This 16th-century baptismal font features three-leaf clovers, which Christians use to symbolize the trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
A De Gregorio/De Agostini Editorial/Getty Images

As is often the case, it all goes back to Eve. Legend has it that as she and Adam were being hustled out of the Garden of Eden, she plucked a four-leaf clover to carry with her as a souvenir of Paradise [source: Elmerhebe].

The druids of the ancient Celtic world wouldn't have known Eve from Adam, as it were, but they too were big fans of four-leaf clovers and carried them around to ward off malevolent spirits [source: Ventura]. This practice evolved into a medieval theory that a four-leaf clover would give you the ability to spot fairies and take evasive action if necessary. As a result, back in the Middle Ages, kids entertained themselves by ferreting out the necessary stems and heading out for a fairy-hunt. Obviously, that's a video game just waiting to happen! [source: Evans-Wentz]

With the little green plants enjoying such popularity, it's no wonder St. Patrick decided to use them as a teaching tool when he set about converting Ireland to Christianity. The four-leaf variety being in short supply, he settled on the ubiquitous three-leaf clovers to explain the three-in-one nature of the Holy Trinity to the heathens. One leaf stood for the Father, one for the Son and the third for the Holy Spirit, all united on the single stem of the Godhead.

Similarly, a poem in the popular tradition holds that the four leaves on the lucky clover signify fame, wealth, health and faithful love. Along these lines, the English have a tradition that if you dream of clover, you're guaranteed a happy and prosperous marriage [source: Faust]. West of England, in Cornwall, some people alleged that if pixies stole your child and left a changeling in its place, the only way to get your own offspring back was to lay a four-leaf clover on the impostor [source: Evans-Wentz].

So we've established that four-leaf clovers have been considered powerfully lucky for a very long time, but why?

Feeling Lucky

Our natural tendency to rely on "magical thinking" is the factor behind a lot of our superstitions.
Our natural tendency to rely on "magical thinking" is the factor behind a lot of our superstitions.
Zeljko Radojko/iStock/Thinkstock

Clover is a type of pea and is valued by farmers for a couple of reasons: Cows like to fill their faces with it; bees like to fill up on its nectar and the plant itself likes to fill its boots with nitrogen. That's to say, clover is very good at pulling nitrogen from the air and rooting it in the ground for other plants to eat. There are 300 species of clover, but the best one for the soil is known as white clover, or Trifolium repens [source: Faust].

Trifolium repens also happens to be the kind of clover that produces the lucky four-leaf aberration. That fourth leaf, it turns out, is the result of a suppressed gene that fails to be suppressed. Nobody's exactly sure what causes this to happen; but, for whatever reason, it rarely does. Very rarely [source: Olsen]. As mentioned earlier, your chances of finding a four-leaf clover are a measly one in 10,000. It's that rarity that accounts for the luck associated with four-leaf clovers. In other words, you're lucky just to find one, so it stands to reason (a certain kind of reason) that more luck will follow.

This is what scholars like to call, "magical thinking." Because of the way our brains operate, we're constantly looking for connections in order to explain the happenstance of the world around us. Magical thinking kicks in when we refuse to revise our conclusions despite all evidence to the contrary [source: Diaconis].

Take the story of Sandra and her stolen bicycle. Both she and the officer who found it attribute the happy outcome to the four-leaf clover she gave him from her collection. But a skeptic might ask how someone toting a quiver of the lucky clovers would have the misfortune of being robbed of her bike in the first place.

Magical thinking skirts around awkward questions like this and sticks to the convenient details while ignoring the inconvenient ones. That said, in this case at least, magical thinking is a lot more fun than skepticism.

In that spirit, here's a bit of clover trivia: In 2009, after studying ways to crossbreed the lucky plant, a farmer in Japan named Shigeo Obara grew a clover with 56 leaves on it! Logically, that makes it 14 times luckier than a mere four-leaf clover [source: Japan Times].

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