What A Lucky Strike!

THE REAL DIRT

March 15, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

The luckiest man on earth, Terry Michaelson-Yeates, grows shamrocks in a greenhouse in Wales. Why are his Irish eyes smiling? Take a look at those plants.

Every one is covered with four-leaf clovers.

In fact, those 30 plants have produced many four-leaf clovers since Michaelson-Yeates plucked them from a desolate Irish hillside last fall.

The magical, mystical shamrocks will make him rich and famous, he says, once he learns how to successfully breed the plants. If not by this St. Patrick's Day, then perhaps by next.

Michaelson-Yeates, you see, is a plant geneticist. Which is why, someday, he hopes to be rolling in clover.

"I want to explore the novelty market," he says. "The world needs a bit of luck, with this recession and all."

He discovered the rare plants quite by accident while on a fishing holiday in County Waterford, in southern Ireland. The clover was growing unobtrusively beside a rugged footpath on a scenic cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

Michaelson-Yeates can't explain what led him to that spot.

"I literally stumbled onto the first plant," he says. "Perhaps a leprechaun led me there."

He stared at the shamrock in awe. How could one plant produce so many four-leaf clovers? Then his eye caught a similar plant. And another. And another.

Michaelson-Yeates swooped down to examine the ground.

"I spent the whole day there on my hands and knees," he says. "I found 30 of these plants, all within one-half mile."

His heart leaped. Michaelson-Yeates, who has spent 19 years breeding clover for livestock feed, knew the significance of his find. Agriculture be damned, he thought: Four-leaf clovers are for people, not pigs.

"In all those years, and hundreds of thousands of plants, I've found only a few that have fours," he says.

Carefully, he took rooted cuttings from the plants, placed them in plastic bags and hurried home to Aberystwyth, Wales. There he potted the shamrocks, placed them in his greenhouse and crossed his fingers.

The plants survived. They are now 6 inches tall and growing vigorously. They continue to produce four-, five- and even six-leaf clovers.

There is only one problem.

All his efforts to breed the four-leaf trait into the clovers' progeny have failed, says Michaelson-Yeates. To date, all offspring of those 30 mother plants have reverted back to three-leaf clovers.

In short, science cannot clone the lucky shamrock.

Perhaps it wasn't meant to.

"For some reason, the character of this four-leaf plant isn't stable," says Michaelson-Yeates. "That's the bad news. This clover is not under genetic control."

The reason? Leprechauns aside, of course.

Michaelson-Yeates suggests the fourth leaflet may be caused by "some kind of environmental trigger that modifies the genetic makeup of the plant itself."

Such as?

He shrugs, perplexed.

"A virus, I'd guess. That's why the four-leaf clover is so rare."

So the fourth leaf may be due to the Clover Flu? Sorry, I vote for the leprechauns.

Undaunted, Michaelson-Yeates works on. Armed with an electron microscope, he is determined to unravel this plant mystery. Call him the Columbo of clover.

"It could take a helluva long time," he says of his search for the key to the four-leafed trait. "Perhaps it's something quite different. Perhaps it's the salinity of the soil, or a bug of some kind. It's hit-or-miss, but I'm going to find it. I've got all the specimens I need."

If successful, he would cultivate thousands of lucky shamrocks and market them worldwide.

"I'd produce cards that have a picture of a leprechaun on the front, and a real four-leaf clover on the back," says Michaelson-Yeates.

The plant has already brought him some good fortune, he says.

"According to legend, the first leaflet is for fame, which I've had," he says. "The second is for wealth, which I'm waiting for. The third is for a faithful lover, which I've got. And the fourth is for glorious health.

@4 "So far, so good. I'll keep my fingers crossed."

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