Monthly Archives: June 2014

Giants of the North American Savannas

 

A temperate climate savanna.

A temperate climate savanna.

Background

I have to admit that I’ve been that I have become a bit obsessed with savannas over the last few years. I’ll provide a little background information on savannas, and who knows? Maybe you’ll become obsessed as well!

A savanna is a grass and tree ecosystem whose trees are spaced out enough that the canopy does not close. Because the trees are so spaced out, a lot of direct and filtered sunlight can reach the ground (actually, it reaches the wide variety of plants growing in the soil). This results in an extremely diverse ecosystem, and the savanna is said to be the most highly productive ecosystem on land.

Through the pioneering work of many individuals (Allan Savory is probably the most well-known), we know that savannas may be our only hope of healing the land, but they optimally function only when there are large herbivores on the land. And the key to savannas’ sustainability in a wild system has to do with the relationship of predators and prey as I discussed in my previous article, Lessons from a Safari. To summarize, the predators keep the large herbivores bunched (a.k.a. “mobbed” together). This mobbing concentrates the grazing, trampling, manure and urine deposits on the ground. The constant moving of the herd provides a recovery period before the animals return.Unfortunately, most savanna ecosystems have a shortage or complete absence of large predators.

In modern times, the savanna is mimicked with domesticated animals in place of wild herbivores, mobile electric fencing instead of predators, and plants beneficial to the animals (the pastures/grasslands) and humans in the system (the trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants provide food, textiles, medicine, fuel wood, etc.). There are many examples of using these systems to repair completely degraded land while providing a profitable farm income.

Some cultures have developed long-term relationships with savannas, and have used these systems for thousands of years. These systems are also known as agrosilvopasture (agricultural + silva (Latin for forest) + pasture). The one I am most familiar with, due to my time living in Portugal and visiting Spain, is the dehesa system of the central and southern Iberian Peninsula. These systems produce many products:

  • meat from grazing animals
  • meat from foraging pigs (including the world famous and delicious jamón ibérico or presunto ibérico)
  • meat from wild game
  • income from hunting wild animals
  • mushrooms
  • honey
  • cork (truly sustainably harvested from cork oak – aside: please support companies that use real cork in their wine bottles)
  • other wood products
  • fuel wood
  • habitat for a wide range of animals including endangered species
  • and more!

I know that there are a lot of big names in the world of sustainable and regenerative agriculture that are talking about savannas, but I think this is way more than just a trendy topic. I feel like savanna systems are the future of truly sustainable and truly regenerative land management systems. My long-term goal is to recreate a savanna system similar to this in the United States. I am currently looking for land right now. As I share my dream with friends, farmers, or real-estate agents, I often get a very confused look. Most people are familiar with the savannas of Africa. When I explain the silvopasture system, a few understand how this has worked in Europe. But savannas in North America?

I explain that at the beginning of every Permaculture project, we need to gather information. This includes the obvious USDA Zone, rainfall, sun angles, shade areas, etc. It also includes taking stock of the current ecosystem, i.e. the animal and plant life on the land. In addition, we want to gather as much historical information about the land. When were the last floods? Droughts? What was the land’s use over the last decade? What was its use over the last hundred years?

Now what if we go back even further? What if we go back 20,000 years? We would find ourselves toward the end of the Pleistocene Epoch. During the Pleistocene, we would find that glaciers stretched as far south as Chicago. The remainder of the North American continent was savanna (and also some significant wetland and coastal ecosystems). Studying these savannas can give us key insights into our current flora and fauna, but it can also give us inspiration while designing our modern agricultural systems.

Our land in North America is suited to savanna ecosystems. I firmly believe that if we convert our land to savannas we will regenerate our land, restore our wildlife and watersheds, produce healthier food, and create lucrative incomes for farmers. The remainder of this article will outline some of the amazing fauna (animals) that existed in these North American savannas.

For a great look at some of the unique flora (plants) from the Pleistocene savannas of North America, I highly recommend Whit Bronaugh’s article, The Trees the Miss the Mammoths.

 

Megafauna of North America

Megafauna is a term that refers to large or “giant” animals. These large animals are almost entirely extinct. There are a number of theories why these animals died out, but climate change and human predation are the two leading theories. I think it was likely a combination of multiple factors.

This list is large, but not all-inclusive. It is meant to give a general overview of the animals that once roamed North America.

The savannas of North America were home to a wide variety of herbivores.

The savannas of North America were home to a wide variety of herbivores.

HERBIVORES AND NON-PREDATORY OMNIVORES

1. Peccaries: There were a few species of Peccary in North America. These also resemble pigs, and there is one, the Collared Peccary, that is still living in the southwestern United States. The two most notable extinct Peccaries are the Flat-Headed Peccary (Platygonus genus) which was about 3 feet long (1 meter) and 100 pounds (45 kg). The Long-Nose Peccary (Mylohyus) was a bit larger weighing 150 pounds (68 kg).

Peccaries

Flat-Headed Peccary (left) and Long-Nosed Peccary (right)

Artist's rendition of a Pleistocene Peccary.

Artist’s rendition of a Pleistocene Peccary.

 

2. Tapirs (Tapirus species): Many people are familiar with Tapirs, because they are at almost every zoo I have ever visited. They look like a long-nosed pig, and they live in the forests/jungles of South and Central America and Southeast Asia. The Tapirs of North America were probably very similar to the modern Tapirs.

Artist's rendition of a Tapir (middle) in the Pleistocene.

Artist’s rendition of a Tapir (middle) in the Pleistocene.

Extant (still living) Tapirs.

Extant (still living) Tapirs.

Extinct Tapir species skeleton.

Extinct Tapir species skeleton.

 

3. Ground Sloths: There are over 80 genera of ground sloth. Some of these “Giant Sloths” grew to over 17 feet (5.2 meters) tall and weighed over 5 tons (4,500 kg)! These were not the small, sedentary, tree-living sloths of today!

Artist's rendition of Ground Sloths.

Artist’s rendition of Ground Sloths.

Ground Sloth skeleton.

Ground Sloth skeleton.

Ground Sloth size comparison.

Ground Sloth size comparison.

 

4. Giant Beaver (Castoroides): The Giant Beaver was a very large rodent. It resembled the modern-day beaver, but it weighed 130-220 pounds (60-100 kg) and was over 8 feet (2.4 meters) long! The Giant Beaver ranged from Alaska to Florida. It is very interesting that multiple Native American tribes have myths of giant beavers. Makes you wonder if they really are myths or just old histories.

Artist's rendition of Giant Beavers.

Artist’s rendition of Giant Beavers.

Giant Beaver skeleton.

Giant Beaver skeleton.

Giant Beaver size comparison.

Giant Beaver size comparison.

 

5. Llama (Lama glama): The Llamas of today are the same ones that used to roam North America. They migrated to from North America to South America where they continued to thrive after the North American Llamas died out. Due to importation, there are now over 150,000 Llamas in North America again. Llamas grow to 5.5-6 feet (1.7-1.9 meters) tall and weigh 280-450 pounds (130-200 kg). Llamas have a long history as a meat, fiber, and pack animal.panduan android

The Llamas of today are the same that once roamed North America.

The Llamas of today are the same that once roamed North America.

Herd of Llamas.

Herd of Llamas.

Llamas have been meat, fiber, and pack animals.

Llamas have been meat, fiber, and pack animals.

 

6. Camel (Camelops): These camels were likely very similar to the modern Bactrain (double-humped) camels of today. Although because soft tissue does not fossilize, we do not know if the Camelops had one, two, or no humps! The largest species were estimated to stand 7-9 feet (2-2.7 meters) tall at the shoulder and weighed up to 2,600 pounds (1,200 kg). Some scientists think the hump was originally used not for water storage in the desert, but as insulation from the cold.

Reconstruction of the extinct North American Camel.

Reconstruction of the extinct North American Camel.

Camel skeleton.

Camel skeleton.

Extinct North American Camel (with other species). Note the Antelope and White-Tailed Deer in the foreground.

Extinct North American Camel (with other species).
Note the Antelope and White-Tailed Deer in the foreground.

 

7. Saiga Antelope (Saiga tatarica): I have to admit that this animal completely amazed me. It is still living! The Saiga Antelope once inhabited North America and most of the central Europe and Asia. Sadly, it now lives in a small area of Russia, Kazakstan, Kalmykia, and Mongolia, and there are less than 100,000 animals remaining. The Saiga stands 2-2.5 feet (0.6–0.8 meters) at the shoulder and weighs between 80-140 pounds (36 and 63 kg). It is truly an otherworldly creature!

The Saiga Antelope is still alive!

The Saiga Antelope is still alive!

The Saiga Antelope once roamed North America... and it is still alive!

The Saiga Antelope… amazing!

It looks like it is not quite from this world!

It looks like it is not quite from this world!

 

9. Horse (Equus genus): There are over 50 species of horse that live during the Pleistocene in North America. Some of these were much smaller than today’s horses, and some likely were more Zebra-like. They all seemed to be variations on the horse theme, and none of them were much larger than modern horses. But it does seem that our modern horse did originate in North America, crossing land bridges to Asia before becoming extinct in North America.

Artist's rendition of various extinct horse species.

Artist’s rendition of various extinct horse species.

Artist's rendition of a North American Horse.

Artist’s rendition of a North American Horse.

Artist's rendition of a North American Horse species considered "stilt-legged" .

Artist’s rendition of a North American Horse species considered “stilt-legged”.

 

10. Stag-Moose (Cervalces scotti): The Stag-Moose had characteristics of both a stag (Deer) and a Moose. It grew to over 8 feet (2.5 meters) tall and a weighed over 1,500 pounds (680 kg). It was a bit larger than a modern Moose, but the antlers of a deer or elk. They appear to have lived in the wetlands of Canada to Arkansas, again living up to its name of Moose.

Artist's rendition of a Stag Moose being hunted by American Cheetah.

Artist’s rendition of a Stag Moose being hunted by saber-toothed cats.

Stag-Moose skeleton.

Stag-Moose skeleton.

Size comparison of the Stag-Moose.

Size comparison of the Stag-Moose.

 

11. Shrub Ox (Euceratherium collinum): This large bovid grew to over 1,300 pounds (590 kg) and lived in North America from California to Illinois (at least). Scientists have been able to examine its fossilized dung, and determined that it from both grass and tree. A perfect example of a savanna animal!

Artist's rendition of the Shrub-Ox.

Artist’s rendition of the Shrub-Ox.

Shrub-Ox skeleton.

Shrub-Ox skeleton.

 

12. Woodland Muskox (Bootherium bombifrons): This was a very widespread bovid in North America living from Alaska to New Jersey and as far south as Texas. It was similar in appearance to the living Tundra Muskox, but it was a warmer-climate species.

Artist's rendition of a Woodland Musk Ox.

Artist’s rendition of a Woodland Musk Ox.

Woodland Musk Ox skeleton.

Woodland Musk Ox skeleton.

Woodland Musk Ox probably had a strong resemblance to the extant Tundra Muskox.

Woodland Musk Ox probably had a strong resemblance to the extant Tundra Muskox (pictured).

 

13. Bison: There were four species of Bison in North America: Bison antiquus, Bison latifrons, Bison occidentalis, Bison priscus, and all were large, herbivorous herding animals. These extinct Bison species likely resembled the Bison of today (American Bison and Wood Bison), although some species were quite a bit larger. Bison antiquus was about 25% larger than modern Bison and Bison latifrons grew to 8.2 feet (2.5 meters) at the shoulder and weighed over 4,400 pounds (2,000 kilograms)! It may be the largest bovid that ever lived!

Artist's rendition of Bison being attacked by Smilodon.

Artist’s rendition of Bison being attacked by Smilodon.

Another Bison/Smilodon encounter.

Another Bison/Smilodon encounter.

Size comparison of Bison latifrons (left), B. bison athabascae/Wood Bison of Canada (left middle).

Size comparison of Bison latifrons (left), B. bison athabascae/Wood Bison of Canada (left middle).

 

14. Mammoth (Mammuthus genus): There were a number of Mammoth species that roamed North America. The largest grew to over 13 feet at the shoulder (4 meters) and weighed over 9 tons (8,100 kg)! Based on a lot of research, it appears that Mammoths were very similar to modern day elephants. Mammoths ate grasses, shrubs, trees, and cacti. The last remaining species of Mammoth was likely the Wooly Mammoth, at there is reliable evidence that they living until 1650 BC!

Mammoth_01

Artist’s rendition of a Mammoth.

The Columbian Mammoth lived in the savannas of North America.

The Columbian Mammoth lived in the savannas of North America.

Size comparison of the Columbian Mammoth (left), African Elephant (middle), and Mastadon (right).

Size comparison of the Columbian Mammoth (left), African Elephant (middle), and Mastadon (right).

 

15. Mastodon (Mammut): The Mastadons were smaller, stouter, more muscled elephant-like animals that appeared to live more in the forest than in the grasslands. They grew to over 9 feet (2.8 meters) at the shoulder and weighed over 5 tons (4,500 kg). Mastodons lived from Alaska to Florida and central Mexico.

Artist's rendition of the Mastodon.

Artist’s rendition of the Mastodon.

Another rendition of the forest-dwelling Mastodons.

Another rendition of the forest-dwelling Mastodons.

Comparing the Wooly Mammoth (left) with the Mastodon (right).

Comparing the Wooly Mammoth (left) with the Mastodon (right).

 

 

There were numerous predators in the North American savannas.

There were numerous predators in the North American savannas.

PREDATORS

1. Teratorn (Teratornithidae family): The name Teratornis is Greek for “monster bird”, and these large birds of prey lived up to their name… of course, we named them well after they became extinct, but you understand what I am trying to say. There were at least five species of Teratorns, and the species in North America grew to over 50 pounds (23 kg), which is moderately heaver for a flying bird, but they had a wingspan of over 18 feet (5.5 meters). A South American relative may have had a wingspan of over 25 feet (7.6 meters)! Comparing their beaks to modern-day birds, it is likely that the Teratorns were hunters and not scavengers.

Artist's rendition of a Teratorn.

Artist’s rendition of a Teratorn.

Teratorn skeleton.

Teratorn skeleton.

Size comparison of a Teraton to a human... and a Cessna!

Size comparison of a Teraton to a human… and a Cessna!

 

2. Short-Faced Bear (Arctodus genus): The Short-Faced Bear was one of the largest mammalian predators on land. They stood up to 12 feet (3.6 meters) when standing on their hind legs, and 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall at the shoulder when walking, and they weighed over 2,000 pounds (900 kg). Scientists still cannot decide what or how the Short-Faced Bear ate or hunted. Some think it stole food from actively hunting animals like the smaller wolves and cats, but others think they actively hunted prey on their own. Either way, they were a common predator, ranging from Alaska to Mississippi.

Artist's rendition of the Short-Faced Bear.

Artist’s rendition of the Short-Faced Bear.

Skeleton of the Short-Faced Bear.

Skeleton of the Short-Faced Bear.

Size comparison of the Short-Faced Bear.

Size comparison of the Short-Faced Bear.

 

3. Dire Wolves (Canis dirus): The Dire Wolves were the largest of all Canis species. While they were about the same size as the modern Gray Wolf, they weighed quite a bit more (up to 175 pounds/80 kg) and had larger teeth. Dire Wolves lived in forests and savannas and ranged from Alberta, Canada to Bolivia, and from Florida to California.It is highly likely that Dire Wolves lived in packs like modern Canis species.

Artist's rendition of a pack of Dire Wolves fighting with a Similidon (Sabre-toothed Cat).

Artist’s rendition of a pack of Dire Wolves fighting with a Smilodon (Sabre-Toothed Cat) over food.

Dire Wolf skeleton.

Dire Wolf skeleton.

Dire Wolf size comparison.

Size comparison of the Grey Wolf (left) and Dire Wolf (right).

 

4. American Lion (Panthera leo atrox): Yes, America used to have lions! The American Lion, also known as the American Cave Lion, may be the largest cat to ever exist in the world, and it roamed the Americas from Alaska to Peru. The American Cave Lion stood 4 feet (1.2 meters) at the shoulder, stretched over 8 feet (2.5 meters) long, and weighed almost 800 pounds (350 kg). They looked like super-sized African Lions; however, the American Lion lived in much colder weather and probably used caves to escape the Winter cold.

Artist's rendition of an American Lion.

Artist’s rendition of an American Lion.

American Lion skeleton.

American Lion skeleton.

Size comparison of the American Lion (left),

Size comparison of the American Lion (left), European Lion (middle), and “African” Lion (right).

 

5. American Cheetah (Miracinonyx): And yes, America also had cheetahs! The American Cheetah was very similar to the well-known African Cheetah, just larger. They weighed about 150 pounds (70 kg) and stood almost 3 feet (0.9 meters) at the shoulder. Very little is actually known about the American Cheetah, but their behavior was probably very much the same as the African Cheetah. Many scientists believe the American Proghorn is so fast, reaching 60 miles per hour, due to being hunted by the equally fast American Cheetah.

Artist's rendition of the American Cheetah.

Artist’s rendition of the American Cheetah.

American Cheetah skeleton sketch.

American Cheetah skeleton sketch.

Size comparison of the American Cheetah (

Size comparison of the American Cheetah (left), “African” Cheetah (left middle), Cougar (right middle), and the extinct Sivapanthera (right).

 

6. Saber-Toothed Cats (Smilodon, Homotherium): The saber-toothed cats (wrongly called Saber-Toothed Tigers) were large, predatory cats with unusually large canine teeth. The Homotherium genus contained over a dozen species and grew to almost 500 pounds (225 kg). But the most well known of the saber-toothed cats, although many people wouldn’t know its name, were the Smilodons. This genus of saber-toothed hunter had at least three species. Smilodon populator rivals the American Lion for the largest cat, and some believe it grew to 880 pounds (400 kg)! Smilodons lived in savannas and forests, and they specialized in hunting large herbivores.

Artist's rendition of a Smilodon attack.

Artist’s rendition of a Smilodon attack.

Smilodon skeleton.

Smilodon skeleton.

Size comparison of the

Size comparison of two species of Smilodon (left, middle) and a smaller, saber-toothed species Megantereon (right).

 

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Photo References:

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Wild Mushroom Identification (and a project for kids!)

I want to take a few minutes to explain why identifying your local mushrooms is important. Even if you have no desire to ever eat a wild mushroom, which I think is a travesty, there is still a few good reasons to go beyond simple avoidance.

And for all you sticklers out there, I know a “mushroom” is really called a “fruiting body”, but for sake of simplicity for the average reader, I will stick with the layman’s vernacular. 

These mushrooms popped up all over my neighborhood... but what were they?

These mushrooms popped up all over my neighborhood… but what were they?

Before I get into the reasons, let me give you some background:
We’ve been in our new neighborhood for a few weeks now, and last week it rained quite a bit. Within a few days, there were mushrooms popping up in many of our neighbors lawns. Now I never really dismiss mushrooms. I am kind of addicted to them. I like to try and identify mushrooms, and I absolutely love to find edible mushrooms. However, I am not a highly skilled mycologist. Yes, when comparing myself to the average man-on-the-street, I am smarter than your average bear pertaining to the topic of mycology. But I am not a Paul Stamets or David Arora (these are two famous and noted mycologists… two of my favorite mycologists, in fact… and I know it makes me a geek when I actually have “favorite” mycologists!).

Well, the ones I saw were large, mostly white, and gilled. While a number of mushrooms can make a person sick, very few mushrooms in North America are actually deadly; however, there are a few mushrooms fitting this description that are, indeed, deadly. This includes the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) and the Destroying Angels (species including Amanita ocreata, A. verna, A. virosa, A. bisporigera). If a person is a beginning mushroom hunter, you should avoid eating any mushrooms that comes close to this description. If you are a mid-level, amateur mycologist (like me), then it is fun to identify them, but I would probably never eat this type of mushroom, just in case I am wrong. A seasoned mushroom hunter or a professional mycologist may feel comfortable eating a mushroom of this type, but even some of these people avoid eating them. There is not room for error with these mushrooms. This nice thing is that these mushrooms are easily avoided. And there are so many other edible mushrooms that are easily identified, that we are not missing out on much by avoiding mushrooms that may look like deadly species.

Well, I saw a few of these mushrooms, and I quickly realized they were not going to be easily identified without a little bit of work. I had a few guesses for species, but I wasn’t sure. But we had just moved here, and we had a lot of other things going on, and frankly, I just didn’t have the time to try and identify these mushrooms. But then I saw more of them, and then some more, and then even my wife was telling me about them popping up in the neighbors’ lawns. I started to reevaluate  the need to identify these mushrooms, and I came up with a few reasons why it could actually be more than just a personally interesting project.

First – I really just like to know the biology that is surrounding me. It was kind of bothering me to have this many mushrooms popping up around me when I didn’t know what they were.

Second – In a worst-case scenario, one of my children, one of my neighbors’ children, or even my dog, could end up taking a bite of one of these mushrooms. It would be very helpful to know how concerned I needed to be about these mushrooms surrounding me, my family, and my community.

Third – I will be working in a local ER in a few weeks. It is not uncommon for parents or babysitters to show up with a child who ate some mushrooms from the front yard. They often come in with the remnants of the mushroom cap. Since this is my local area, it would be good to have this information on hand to make a faster clinical decision.

Fourth – I had a great kids science project right in front of me. Every time we walked past these mushrooms, my two boys (age 5 and 6 years old) would ask if these were poisonous mushrooms or not. I kept telling them that since we didn’t know what they were, we have to assume they are poisonous for now.

A partial Fairy Ring.

A partial Fairy Ring.

Once I decided to try and identify these mushrooms, I had to gather some information. I grabbed my boys, and we went for some collections of data and specimens. We found this partial ring of mushrooms growing a few houses away. This ringed pattern is sometimes a full circle, and it is called a Fairy or Elf Ring/Circle. After reading The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hobbit with my kids at bedtime, by boys loved that name!

I took photos of mushrooms at various ages of development, from just popping through the soil to very mature. (see the photos that follow)

Young unidentified mushrooms.

Young unidentified mushrooms.

False Parasol Chlorophyllum molybdites

Prime Unidentified Mushroom

False Parasol Chlorophyllum molybdites

Another photo of the same specimen from above, showing the gills and the firmly attached ring (annulus).

False Parasol Chlorophyllum molybdites

A mature specimen of our unidentified mushroom. 

We returned to the house with a number of photos and a few specimens. After really examining these mushrooms, I had already narrowed down the list in my head, but I was still not certain. I took about 10 minutes, and gave my boys a little science lesson on the parts and life cycle of mushrooms. They really got into it, and they can still name all the parts to a mushroom (fruiting body) – they were looking over my shoulder as I wrote this and pointed them out to me!

All my books are still being shipped from the Azores, including all my mushroom and mycology books, so I used the MycoKeys Online Morphing Mushroom Identifier. This is a really useful tool, and is pretty simple to use.

With the information I had gathered so far, I had narrowed down the choices to two likely species. The first was the highly edible Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera) or the False Parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites) which is not deadly, but definitely poisonous causing severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. The False Parasol is responsible for the most mushroom poisonings in the United States each year. But how do we tell them apart?

The answer is a Spore Print. This is a very simple project, and my kids were fascinated by it. The spores produced by a mushroom will drop from the gills under the cap. Each individual spore is way too small to be seen by the naked eye, but if there are enough of them in one spot, we can determine the color of the spores. The fallen spores will leave a pattern that is unique to that species and individual specimen, just like a fingerprint. A mature cap (I used the one pictured above), with the stalk (stem) removed, is placed on a piece of paper. Putting the cap on a half sheet of black and a half sheet of white paper will ensure the spores can be seen if the spores are all white or black. The cap is left for at least a few hours, but it is best to leave it overnight. I had a very mature mushroom, and my kids were impatient, so after about three hours we checked on our print.

A beautiful spore sprint!

A beautiful spore sprint!
I put half of the cap back on top to show both the cap and spore print in one photograph.

The spore print was a nice, pale green, and this clinched our identification. Our mushroom was the False Parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites). My kids now know that these mushrooms are poisonous. I am relieved they are not deadly. I have a bit more confidence in my mushroom identification skills. My kids had a fun time without even realizing they were learning… which is how education should be! And I got to know some of my mycological neighbors.

But, if I am honest, I was a bit bummed they weren’t edible!

 

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Permaculture Plants: Red Clover

Common Name: Red Clover, Beebread, Clover Rose, Cow Clover, Meadow Clover, and many more…
Scientific Name: Trifolium pratense
Family: Fabaceae (the Legume, Bean, or Pea family)

Fields of Red Clover in bloom are rather beautiful!

Fields of Red Clover in bloom are rather beautiful! 

Description:
Red Clover is one of the most popular green manure, fodder, and cover crops grown in the world. As a legume, it puts atmospheric nitrogen into the soil. It is a well-known attractor of wildlife (deer, rabbits, bees, butterflies, etc.), and it has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries. Red Clover is almost entirely edible, although the flowers are most prized, and they are popular in herbal teas. It is used to control erosion and its taproots bring phosphorus to the surface soil as well. Red Clover is a superbly useful plant and needs to be considered in many Permaculture designs.

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

Red Clover (Trifolium pratense)

History:
Native and widespread in Europe, Western Asia, and Northwest Africa. It highly regarded as a fodder crop and green manure, so it has been spread around the world and naturalized across the globe. Even though it is not native to North America, Red Clover is the State Flower of Vermont.

Trivia:

  • Four leaf clovers were considered good luck in the Middle Ages; they were worn to ward off evil spirits and witches. Five leaf clovers were said to be worn by witches to give them evil powers. For some reason, the folklore of four leaf clovers has basically remained common knowledge, but the folklore of five leaf clovers has been mostly forgotten.
  • Red Clover has been used for centuries in herbal medicine. One of its main applications was for menopausal symptoms. Not surprisingly, modern research has shown that Red Clover contains chemicals that the body converts to plant-based estrogen.
  • A few studies have shown that male animals that eat a lot of clover can develop low sperm counts. This is likely due to the phytoestrogen content.
  • Red Clover is not native to the United States, but is still the Vermont State Flower.
  • Red Clover is the National Flower of Denmark.
Red Clover is one of the most popular nitrogen fixers in modern agriculture.

Red Clover is one of the most popular nitrogen fixers in modern agriculture.

USING THIS PLANT

Primary Uses:

  • Animal Feed – Grazing animals love clover! It is considered to have a forage quality comparable to alfalfa, but the quality doesn’t decline with age nearly as fast as alfalfa.
  • Nitrogen-Fixing Plant – this plant creates its own nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with microorganisms (bacteria) in its roots. It typically produces an excess of nitrogen that can be used by neighboring plants. This is a leguminous plant; Clover inoculation group (Rhizobium trifolii).
  • Groundcover/Green Manure – Few people use this as an intentional groundcover, but it will work as one. Due to its nitrogen-fixing ability, it is more often used as a green manure; this is a species planted for a season and allowed to die back in Winter or tilled under in the Spring before planting. Since Red Clover is a perennial, it will grow back unless it is tilled under. And while I am adamantly against deep tilling in almost all circumstances, a very shallow tilling of cover crops/green manures makes sense, especially in the early stages of land development. It deposits the most nitrogen into the soil when killed at mid-bloom of its second season. In general, Red clover is pretty quick to establish. Grows strong for about 2 years, but starts to decline and won’t live more than 5 years. About 8 lbs (3.6 kg) per acre if used with a grass in pastures, but the amount can be tripled or quadrupled if a single-species crop is desired. If a smaller space is being used, sowing rate is about 2-3 grams per square meter (roughly square yard).
Bumblebees love Red Clover, even more than Honeybees. I took this pic when walking across a field, and I was dodging bees left and right!

Bumblebees love Red Clover, even more than Honeybees. I took this pic when walking across a field, and I was dodging bees left and right!

Secondary Uses:

  • Edible Flowers, Leaves, Sprouts, and Roots – While the flowers and young shoots are edible, I think they are not very exciting. Some people say the flowers have a sweet taste, but I find them more nutty. The leaves can also be eaten raw and are best before flowering, or they can be cooked like spinach. Seeds can be sprouted and used like most other sprouts. The taproots are not large, but can be eaten after cooked.
  • Tea Plant – The leaves and flowers make a good tea which is mainly used as a medicine.
  • Medicinal Plant (see below) – Red Clover has a long history as a medicinal.
  • General insect (especially bees!) nectar and pollen plant – Clover Honey is fantastic, although White Clover is the typical source.
  • Shelter plant for beneficial insects
    • Lacewings prefer to lay eggs on this plant
    • Parasitic Wasps prefer to rest and hide on this plant
  • Dynamic Accumulator – when the herbacous above-ground portions of this plant dies back each year, it releases the nutrients it has mined with its taproots. Red Clover is known to pull up and deposit phosphorus. This is great, because natural sources of phosphorus are declining.
  • Erosion Control Species – the deep root system of Red Clover, often coupled with one or more grass species, helps stabilize soils prone to erosion.
Drying Red Clover is fast and easy.

Drying Red Clover is fast and easy.

Red Clover flowers can be dried for later use in teas and other medicinal purposes.

Red Clover flowers can be dried for later use in teas and other medicinal purposes.

Medicinal Uses:

  • Red Clover is generally high in vitamins and minerals.
  • Red Clover has a long history as a medicinal herb.
  • The flowers seem to be highest in healthful compounds, but the leaves can also be used.
  • Bright red or pink flowers are best. Avoid old or brown flowers.
  • Red Clover has historically been used most often for menopausal symptoms and skin conditions, but it has been used for a number of other conditions as well.
  • We know that Red Clover contains isoflavones (mainly biochannin and formononetin) which the body will turn in to phytoestrogens.
  • There is some modern, scientific, medical evidence that suggests Red Clover may be effective for menopausal symptoms, but most large studies do not show Red Clover is helpful.
  • There is some evidence that Red Clover may help menopausal women maintain bone density or at least slow bone density loss (i.e. it fights osteoporosis).
  • There is some evidence that Red Clover may prevent or slow down endometrial cancer, prostate cancer, and benign prostatic hypertrophy. There is also concern Red Clover may make estrogen-dependant cancers worse.
  • There is some evidence that Red Clover may prevent heart disease (it may make arteries more flexible, may “thin” the blood, and may improve circulation).
  • There has not been any good studies on Red Clover treating skin conditions, treat cough in children, or treat psychological problems, although these are all traditional uses.
  • Problems with using Red Clover (this list is not meant to discourage the use of Red Clover, but to make sure you are aware):
    • Using Red Clover in the amounts normally found in teas and most medicinal applications should not be a problem.
    • There is concern that the phytoestrogens from Red Clover may cause problems in people dealing with infertility. There have been animals that become infertile after consuming too much Red Clover. The phytoestrogen effects are also the source of the recommendation for avoiding Red Clover in breast cancer, uterine cancer, ovarian cancer, and fibroids. However, Red Clover may actually be beneficial in endometrial and prostate cancers for this same reason. The bottom line is that we just don’t really know.
    • While there is not a lot of modern studies investigating this, most sources recommend avoiding Red Clover at medicinal levels during pregnancy and lactation, again due to the phytoestrogen effects. But it is probably fine in small amounts.
    • Red Clover should be avoided if a person is taking a blood thinner, has a clotting disorder, or is going to be having surgery, but again, this is theoretical.
  • My take on Red Clover as a medicine is that there is likely some benefit for some people for some medical problems. I think we just don’t know all the details, yet. Unfortunately, almost every study on Red Clover has been done on laboratory extracts and commercial products. I do not think this is anywhere near the same thing as a tea made in your home a few minutes after you harvested fresh Red Clover flowers or using whole, dried flowers and leaves that you preserved yourself. Unless you have some significant medical problems, Red Clover seems to be a very safe plant, and I would encourage people to trial it for its traditional uses… there is a reason it has been used for centuries.
  • Red Clover Tea is a popular herbal tea that is easy to make at home. Add 1 tablespoon of fresh (half-tablespoon dried) Red Clover blossoms to a cup and add 1-1.5 cups of boiling water. Steep for 5-10 minutes. For more tea, you can add 2 cups fresh (1 cup dried) Red Clover blossoms to 4 cups boiling water. A more powerful tea can be made with the same proportions, but you cover the container and allow to steep overnight (anywhere from 12-24 hours). Then strain and reheat if desired.

 

Yield: Variable.
Harvesting: Harvesting Red Clover really depends on its intended application. Livestock usually harvest their own food. It can be harvested, usually with companion grasses, as hay. Harvesting flower heads can be time-intensive if collecting large amounts, but it not bad if collecting for household use. Harvesting for tea or medicinal purposes is done when the flowers are bright red or pink, and before they have any brown or signs of decline.
Storage: Use within a few days fresh. Can be stored for many months if dried. This is most commonly done in an oven or dehydrator at very low temperatures, but can even be done in a sunny window. The flowers dry quickly.

I cut across a vacant lot/field the other day when I was getting new tires on my van. The lot was covered in naturalized Red Clover.

I cut across a vacant lot/field the other day when I was getting new tires on my van. The lot was covered in naturalized Red Clover.

DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT

USDA Hardiness Zone: Zone 3-9
AHS Heat Zone: Zone 8-1 (this is a best guess based upon closely related species that have a defined AHS Heat Zone. I can find no reliable information on the AHS Heat Zone for Red Clover).
Chill Requirement: No reliable information is available.

Plant Type: Small Herbaceous Plant
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Herbaceous Layer, Groundcover Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a number of varieties available, but they can be grouped into two divisions: early-flowering and late-flowering. Typically, late-flowering (also known as mammoth) Red Clovers are used in more northern climates.

Pollination: Self-fertile. Pollinated by bees, moths, and butterflies.
Flowering: Spring to Late Summer/Early Autumn (Apr-Sept)

Life Span:

  • Years of Useful Life: 2-5 years. Considering that the plant propagates pretty easily from self-seeding, an individual’s life span is likely irrelevant. Occasional re-seeding will be needed to keep a patch or field growing strong for more than 4-5 years.
Red Clover is a small, herbaceous plant in the bean and pea family.

Red Clover is a small, herbaceous plant in the bean and pea family.

Red Clover has one or more deep taproots.

Red Clover has one or more deep taproots.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT

Size: 6-24 inches (15-60 cm) tall and wide
Roots: One or more taproots with a fibrous nature.
Growth Rate: Medium

Red Clover is pretty easy to identify.

Red Clover is pretty easy to identify.

Here is a FIVE-leaf clover... yes, the fifth leaf is torn, but it is pretty cool. I don't know if this is more lucky than a four-leaf clover.

Here is a FIVE leaf clover… yes, the fifth leaf is torn, but it is pretty cool. It was said that five leaf clovers were worn by witches to give them evil powers.

GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade
Moisture: Prefers moist soils.
pH: 5.5-7.5 (tolerates a wide range of soil conditions)

Special Considerations for Growing:

  • Inoculate with Rhizobium trifolii if you desire a good patch of Red Clover!
  • Plant to a depth of 0.5-1 inch (1.25-2.5 cm).

Propagation:
Typically from seed. Seed in place in Spring. Pre-soaking for 12 hours in warm water will increase germination rates. After soaking, add the inoculant, then sow. Red Clover can be divided in Spring if desired.

Maintenance: Minimal.

Concerns:

  • Dispersive – Red Clover can spread fairly easily through self-seeding. I personally see this more as an asset than a drawback since it is such a useful plant!
  • Red Clover can become infected with a fungus (Rhizoctonia leguminicola) with produces a toxic alkaloid (slaframine). Plants often show no signs of infection, although it can cause black patches on the leaves. If an animal eats a lot of infected Red Clover in the pasture or in hay, it can develop a condition known as “slobbers”. Not surprisingly, slobbers syndrome causes the animal to salivate excessively, and some animals will also get diarrhea, bloat, and frequent urination. Cattle and horses seem to handle the toxin better than pigs and sheep, but typically the toxin causes problems for about 6-10 hours unless the animal has continued exposure. This toxin rarely causes death, and an animal fully recovers within 24-48 hrs. In general, this is not very common, but it is something to be aware of. I can find no reports of toxicity in humans, and this is likely due to humans just not eating enough Red Clover at one time. Also, many toxins are broken down with heat, so the common method of using Red Clover in tea may reduce the exposure even more.
  • Avoid growing Red Clover near gooseberries or camellias. Red Clover can host a mite that causes fruit drop in gooseberries and premature camellia budding.

 

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Photo References:

  • http://shebicycles.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/cloverfield.jpg
  • http://i0.wp.com/brambleberriesintherain.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/redclover2.jpg
  • http://identifythatplant.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Red-clover-991×1024.jpg
  • http://donwiss.com/pictures/F-2011-05-22/0073.jpg
  • http://forageporage.files.wordpress.com/2011/06/red-clover-head.jpg
  • http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_RZFiFrJMzdg/SpwhuzJN1QI/AAAAAAAABRw/mApq9uuHTQo/s1600-h/red_clover_5leaf.jpg
  • http://embaron.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/red-clover-drying.jpg
  • http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-F6xA6ugZ3Cw/Ui5t6cVg92I/AAAAAAAAA60/fnVjdSlKukM/s1600/IMG_9016.JPG
  • http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/09/Trifolium_pratense_002.JPG
  • http://caliban.mpiz-koeln.mpg.de/thome/band3/tafel_113.jpg
  • http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_zFHEQI0tjNY/S9mRtyoS-5I/AAAAAAAAChA/WRhK_C6X4Ps/s1600/trifolium+pratense9.JPG
  • http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/100/3/537/F1.large.jpg

 

 

 

 

The Benefits of Birding for Permaculturists

I am an amateur naturalist. I absolutely love nature. I love being in the natural world. I love studying nature and all the sciences encompassing and surrounding it. I love that I am still mesmerized and in awe of nature. I love trying to understand the natural world, and I love that there is so much I know I will never understand.

One of my favorite areas of nature (among so many favorite areas) is Birding. The term “Birding” is a great balancing point between complete amateur and paid professional. Bird watching is a more passive experience than Birding, and some Birders will get quite offended if you call them “bird watchers”. Birding is more of an amateur science, unless you get paid for it, and then you are kind of considered an ornithologist. So “Birding” it is.

With pun intended, Birding dovetails nicely with Permaculture. Permaculture Principle One tells us to “Observe and Interact”. Birding requires quite a bit of observation, and this is where a Birder can get really lost in the world of birds. Of course there is the appearance of the bird itself, the shape, size, colors, patterns, etc. There are also the differences between the males and females, and the differences in coloration between the seasons. And then there are the bird calls and sounds, and the variations in sex, location, and time of year. Add to that the variety of flight patterns seen between bird species and other behaviors… any of these factors may be the key to identify similar species. For me, I never just drift off when I am outside, because there are so many things for me to see. I am in constant observation mode.

Principle One is the obvious correlation between Permaculture and Birding, but lets look a little deeper. Permaculture Principle Ten tells us to “Use and Value Diversity”. By keeping track of the birds we have on our land, we can keep tabs on one facet of the biodiversity we aim to increase. If we are designing and implementing good Permaculture projects, we should see a steady increase in the variety of bird species on our property. Of course, we need to keep in mind that many of our favorite foods to eat and also attractive to birds as well, but I’ll take a few (I said a “few”, not a lot!) lost berries for the increase in biodiversity. Besides, many of these birds will also eat our pests.

What about Permaculture Principle Eleven, “Use the Edge, and Value the Margin”? There are many species of bird that only inhabit the edge – that place between field and forest, water and land, valley and mountain Most other bird species will primarily be a field, forest, ocean, or land inhabitant, but will spend significant time in the edge. Understanding the edge will help you understand how to be a better Birder, and vice versa.

We can go even further with Permaculture Principle Six, “Produce No Waste”. There are many items that can be used as bird feed, bird shelter, and bird perches. Every perch we place give us a location for free manure deposits. Bird manure makes a great addition to the compost pile. Consider placing a small bucket of leaves, straw, or dried grass clippings under a perch or bird feeder, then dump the contents every so often into the compost pile.

Birding also keeps a person outside, which is considerably healthier than the alternative. Birders stay active. They stay engaged with their environment. It keeps them mentally moving. Besides the physical, emotional, mental, and possibly even spiritual health benefits, Birding also offers children to get in touch with nature. I won’t get deep into this subject, but it has been proven over and again in the scientific/medical literature that children who interact with nature are healthier all around. I love to hear my two-year old daughter tell me to come and look at “her” birdfeeder when a bird lands on it… and yes, she really does have one that is hers. I love it when my five and six year old boys tell me the names of the birds they spot. They are not experts, but really, neither am I. I am just a little obsessed. But I can think of a lot of worse things to be obsessed about. At least there are a lot of benefits with this obsession. And really birds are just amazing… they are beautiful and interesting and fun to listen to… and they can fly!

If you are interested, I have decided to make my Birding Life List public on this page. Feel free to take a look and let me know how you compare!

 

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