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)
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.
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.
- 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.
USING THIS PLANT
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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.
DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
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)
- 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.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Roots: One or more taproots with a fibrous nature.
Growth Rate: Medium
GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
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).
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.
- 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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