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By Ellen Probert Williamson
According to census reports, several million Americans are of Irish descent. But every year in March we all, whatever our own ethnic heritage may be, become enthusiastically Irish. Everything flaunts the color green, and shamrocks become the flower of the month.
St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland. Legend has it that the good saint used the trifoliate leaves of the shamrock to illustrate his sermons about the Trinity.
Irish peasants still put shamrock leaves in their shoes to ward off evil spirits. Finding a four-leafed clover or shamrock still is considered a sign of good luck.
Shamrocks are a variety of oxalis or clover, with little white or yellow flowers. They do well outdoors but are not very long lived as houseplants, even though the stores are full of pots of them with little green ribbons around them.
Shamrocks are the national flower of Ireland and the state flower of Vermont.
Shamrocks, or oxalis, were an old Druidic mystic emblem in Ireland, the symbol of the sunwheel, long before 432 A.D., when St. Patrick preached before a powerful chieftain and his people.
He was asked, “How can one become three?” St. Patrick, searching for a simple and easily understood answer, saw a shamrock. He held it toward the chieftain.
“Here in this leaf is the old luck symbol of the sun wheel. Three parts in one, divisible yet indivisible.” The point was made.
All kinds of images are connected with March. Lions and lambs. The bridge between the seasons. The voice of the turtledove. And, of course, the wearin’ of the green.
March is the month of the awakening moon in the American Indian calendar. It recognizes March’s transition from winter dormancy to spring’s flowers, trees and animals.
The flower for March and spring in the Chinese flower calendar is the tree peony, a symbol of love and affection. In Japan, the cherry blossom is the flower for March.
The trees are now budding and soon will be in full leaf. Most of us look forward to summer’s green leaves, forgetting all about what a pain it was to have to rake them all up last fall.
According to Professor T.M. Das of India’s University of Calcutta, a tree living for 50 years will generate $31,750 worth of oxygen, provide $62,500 worth of air pollution control, regulate soil erosion and increase $32,250 worth of soil fertility, recycle $38,500 worth of water and provide a home for birds and animals worth $31,250.
This list does not include the value of the fruits, lumber or beauty derived from the tree. So one tree could be said to be worth nearly $200,000.
It won’t be long now before the squirrels and the birds will build their nests in treetops. Any day now, you may see the fluffy-tailed squirrels wrestling with crumpled sheets of newspaper and other such material. It is nest-building time, and while any kind of paper will do, newsprint is preferred. Printer’s ink has long been known as a good moth and vermin repellent. So is cedar bark, with which squirrels also love to line their nests. Could it be that these little animals know instinctively that cedar bark and newsprint will help to keep their homes free of injurious parasites?
In Geneva, N.Y., Cornell University maintains an agricultural experimentation station. One part of it is called the Heirloom Garden, where old forms of vegetables are grown next to their modern counterparts. It is fascinating to see how some have changed and usually improved over the generations. Many, however, have hardly changed at all.
Tomatoes, for instance, which originated with pre-Columbian Indians in the Andes Mountains, were originally deeply lobed, unlike their modern smooth spherical counterparts.
Squashes, too, have changed their shapes over the centuries, as have potatoes, which once were very knobby, with deep-set eyes. Beets and turnips, once shaped like a child’s spinning top, are now round, but carrots are the reverse. Before 1600, they were completely round, not the elongated forms we know today.
Changes in shape are not the only differences. Color has changed in many instances. The most popular watermelon in 1856 was white and pale pink, and cantaloupes were originally green.
A wonderful antique book, “Downings Rural Essays on Horticulture,” published in 1856, includes a section on kitchen gardens, which describes vegetables much like the examples in the Heirloom Garden.
Even though on some days the last of winter’s chill lingers, the unmistakable signs of spring are burgeoning on all sides. There are the first wildflowers in the woods, and in our gardens, the crocuses have given way to forsythia and daffodils.
We are beginning to welcome redbuds, dogwoods, fruit blossoms and the cheerful little faces of pansies.
From shamrock clover to budding trees and the bright-colored vegetable seed packets on grocery store shelves, we look forward to summer and the showers and sunshine of April.
An Irish blessing says, “May the love and protection that St. Patrick can give, be yours in abundance, as long as you live.”
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.