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Shamrocks and Purple Martins

March 12, 2012

On their farm in Barnwell County, South Carolina, Miss Maude and Creech lived by the calendar. Creech vowed that Irish potatoes and English peas should be planted by St. Valentine’s Day, about the same time the bluebirds arrive. He looked forward to the arrival of another of his favorite birds, the purple martin. Some years he saw purple martin scouts as early as mid-February.  As a general rule Creech believed that his martin gourds should be cleaned and ready to receive occupants by St. Patrick’s Day.

My mother always decorated her home with shamrocks during the month of March.  Saint Patrick’s Day attracted her children and grandchildren, leprechauns, young and old, and elves of every size to Mama’s house.

Most botanists affirm that white clover is the original, authentic shamrock of Ireland. The Gaelic word from which shamrock is derived means little clover. Many lawns in the Upstate of South Carolina, including my own backyard, feature a patch of white clover.  Oxalis is also displaying dainty purple flowers in my garden, and black medic is beginning to show new growth.

At least five plant species have been identified as shamrocks – white clover, lesser clover, red clover, black medic, and common wood sorrel or oxalis. These plants have each represented the shamrock in Celtic artwork through the centuries. It became a popular decorative motif in Victorian times.

According to Irish legend, the Celtics regarded the shamrock as a sacred plant because its leaves formed a triad. Tradition holds that Saint Patrick used the plant in the fifth century to illustrate the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The shamrock has since become a symbol associated with Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17.

Traditionally it has been used for medicinal properties. In times of famine Irish peasants ate leaves of the white clover.

In the 19th century, the shamrock became a symbol of rebellion against the English. Strongly associated with Irish identity, the plant has subsequently become the emblem of Ireland.

Green shamrocks and purple martins create a colorful combination in the early spring month of March. The birds return from South America to South Carolina when the white clover is in bloom.

After hearing a radio program in which I discussed the joy of welcoming songbirds to my backyard, John Brown called to lodge a mild complaint. He noted that I had not mentioned the purple martin.

“How could you do a whole program on birds and not even mention my favorite, the purple martin?”

“John, I don’t have martins in my backyard.”

“Well, why not?”

I explained, “It certainly is not because I haven’t tried to attract them! I just have not been successful in persuading them to take up residence in my neighborhood.”

“We’ll just have to get you some martins!”

The purple martin is the largest North American swallow. While I often see other swallow varieties flying over my yard, chimney swifts, tree swallows, and barn swallows, the purple martin has eluded me.

Spending the warm months of the year our neck of the woods, then the iridescent purple birds winter in the Amazon River Basin. They move north as the weather warms and the insect populations begin to increase. Purple martins faithfully return to their landlords in North America for the breeding season. That amazing journey can be as long as 5000 miles each way, each year!

Martin scouts, the oldest members of the population, are the earliest arrivals each year. They head north early to claim the best nesting locations. Scouts usually return to their previous home sites. Six weeks later, waves of younger martins follow to colonize new houses and gourds. During the summer months, they are busy building nests, laying eggs, raising their young, and bringing happiness to their human neighbors.

Clare and I enjoy visiting Georgetown, South Carolina. Just off the boardwalk behind the shops on Front Street, a purple martin enthusiast has arranged bird houses and gourds into an elaborate apartment complex overlooking the Sampit River. Hundreds of birds occupy the lofty abode.

The colony comes to life at sunrise each morning and settles down at sunset each evening. From dawn to dusk the purple martins offer a continual concert of enchanting song. The birds’ acrobatic aerial show is entertaining as well. All the while, these large swallows are feasting on mosquitoes and other insects, providing an efficient pest control service for the city of Georgetown.

I apologize to my friend John Brown for not mentioning his favorite songbird on the radio program. I look forward to his suggestions about how I can attract my own colony.

The shamrocks are already thriving at my place. I eagerly await the arrival of purple martins.


Kirk H. Neely
© March 2012

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