n the Wild ...

Red Clover

By Mary T. Harrington  

            A very recognizable flower throughout the growing season in this area having a long history of folklore and a variety of uses is red clover (Trifolium pretense).  Red clover is commonly found in fields, waste areas and along roadsides. It has dense purple flowers in a single egg shaped head and three leaflets per leaf colored a dull green with mottled blue tones. It can be easily found in the field at Lenoir Nature Reserve located in Yonkers during its blooming season from April to October. 

Red clover was introduced to the United States as a forage plant for livestock and became naturalized. It is exceedingly good for the soil since the roots of the plant are often host to a type of bacteria that can actually put nitrogen into the ground. This is accomplished by absorbing free-floating nitrogen that is not readily available for use by the surrounding soil.  The nitrogen is stored in the body of the bacteria as it forms bumps or nodules on the roots of the red clover. These nodules are then able to transform the nitrogen into a usable form. Red clover was also introduced for the above reasons into Australia, unsuccessfully. A key factor for the failure was the lack in Australia of the major pollinator for this plant, the bumblebee.

The bumblebee is perfectly adapted in size, strength and weight to deal with nature’s design of this plant. Each head of the clover is made up of closely packed florets with pollen and nectar at the base of each floret. The opening of the floret is just large enough for the head of bumblebee. The bumblebee brushes against the pistol and stamen during the struggle to reach the nectar. The pistol and stamen are activated by the bee’s efforts and literally spring up as the bee passes.

The three-leaved clover has been said in legend to be the plant St. Patrick picked in order to show the Trinity or the “Three in One”. The cloverleaf has also been associated with good luck particularly when finding one with four leaflets.  Other superstitions relate clover as a way of identifying the man who would be your spouse. The first man to come one’s way after putting the leaf in one’s shoe, placing it over the door or swallowing it whole, would be the man you were destined to marry. 

Red clover has an extensive history as a medicinal herb used primarily in the treatment of whooping cough or other bronchial disorders. The flower head is sweet and has been used in salads or popped like corn as a snack.

A variety of birds and mammals use red clover as a food source including Ruffed Grouse, Horned Lark, Ringed-necked Pheasant, Wild Turkey, Beaver, Cotton-tail Rabbit, Skunk and White-tailed Deer.

Red clover is the state flower of Vermont.  

Picture courtesy of TIG

Mary T. Harrington

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