Every afternoon, Gustavo Hernandez puts a sign on his old station wagon, parks at a busy intersection and waits for customers in need of "a bit of Irish luck."
Hernandez has no connection to Ireland, though he does have reddish whiskers. Still, he sells thousands of four-leaf clovers, potted in little planters, to Mexicans hedging their bets on love, looking for jobs or just hoping for a little change of fortune.
"Everyone needs good luck," said Hernandez, who also refers to his merchandise as "the flower of St. Patrick."
Every March 17 is a showcase day for the three-leaf shamrock, a traditional symbol of Ireland. The Irish people and those of Irish descent the world over adorn their homes and clothes with shamrocks as a proud sign of their heritage.
But even in countries where the shamrock has little meaning, its four-leaf cousin, a horticultural anomaly, is becoming a symbol of good luck and a growing industry. From Hernandez's tailgate business to online retailers that reach around the globe, commerce in the four-leaf clover is booming, and not just in March.
"People see them and think to themselves, 'I could use a little luck!' " said Robert Harris, owner of the Luck Factory, an online business based in New York that ships key chains, cuff links and other items decorated with four-leaf clovers. Recently, he said, customers have been ordering clover items to send to U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Candy Smith, who runs an online business in Scranton, Pa., sells thousands of packets of shamrock seeds from Ireland, as well as jewelry and other items decorated with four-leaf clovers. She said real estate agents buy them hoping for sales, travel agencies order them in bulk and brides clamor for them.
Mystique born of rarity
The clover's mystique, Smith said, comes from its rarity. She estimated that for every field of 10,000 three-leaf clovers, there might be one clover of the four-leaf variety.
Ed Martin, a retiree in Alaska, hopes to soon become the world record-holder for collecting real four-leaf clovers. Martin, 73, who operated heavy machinery, said he tooled around the United States in a motor home for years picking the clovers to give away.
"I always got a smile," he said in a telephone interview. Several years ago, Martin decided to get serious about collecting, and he said he now has about 80,000 four-leaves pressed into plastic sheeting. Officials in his small Alaskan town of Soldotna are preparing the paperwork to nominate him for a Guinness world record.
The current record holder is a Pennsylvania prison inmate, George Kaminski. While serving time on a kidnapping conviction for the past 25 years, Kaminski has gathered 72,927 four-leaf clovers. He found them, one at a time, hidden in the grass of prison yards.
Kaminski was not available for an interview, but a case worker at the minimum-security facility in Mercer, Pa., where he lives, relayed a few questions and answers by phone. Kaminski said he started finding the clovers to show a younger inmate who was depressed that "you can do anything you set your mind to."
Martin said he keeps finding more clovers in Alaska, despite abundant snow, spotting them even when "people standing right next to me" cannot pick them out. Having survived submarine duty with the U.S. Navy and life as a wilderness homesteader, "living with bears and moose," he said, "I know [the clovers] have brought me good luck."
The word shamrock derives from the Gaelic word seamrog, most likely meaning "little clover." According to Catholic legend, St. Patrick used the plant to illustrate the concept of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It has since become a symbol of Ireland, where men often wear a clover sprig on their lapels on St. Patrick's Day.
This week, as in past years, fresh shamrocks are being flown from Ireland to be presented to President Bush.
Art Agnew, Ireland's ambassador to Mexico, said there was considerable confusion outside Ireland about the difference between shamrocks and four-leaf clovers. He said one Mexican department store threw a celebration of Ireland and decorated it with four-leaf clovers. He diplomatically kept quiet about the mix-up, but said anyone who sported a four-leaf for St. Patrick's Day in Ireland "would absolutely be laughed at."
Joan McCabe, a member of the South County Dublin Horticultural Society, described the four-leaf clover as a "mistake," a mutation of the more common three-leaf variety.
Hernandez, undaunted, is hoping for a good week of sales in Mexico City for his "flowers of St. Patrick." An engineer by training, he started growing clovers as a hobby 10 years ago. Now, his garden is bursting with them. On a good week, he sells perhaps 20 clover plants from his car, at prices ranging from $5 to $70, depending on their size.
And sometimes, he said, they seem to bring people luck. One customer told him a thief broke into his car, but instead of stealing the vehicle, he simply took the clovers. Another customer bought a plant, worked up the nerve to woo a woman, and returned to buy a bigger pot when she agreed to go out with him.
Hernandez has had his own share of bad fortune, he acknowledged, going through a divorce and losing his house to a bank foreclosure. But he noted that at age 46, he is in good health and has four children. "Just maybe," he said, "my luck is yet to come."