Clover is the common name for a number of species in the botanical group Trifolium. It is a low growing legume, belonging to the pea family, and is valued both as a green manure, as a forage crop and for its medicinal properties.

The distinctive leaves of clover plants are made up of three egg-shaped leaflets, usually 0.5-1.0 inch long, (although four-leaf mutations can sometimes be found if you are lucky!). Most clover flower-heads are made up of a globular mass of 20-50 individual florets and are white, pink or red depending on the trifolium species. The flowers are rich in nectar and are highly favoured by honey bees - the resulting clover honey being pale with a mild flavour. Interestingly, once a bee has depleted a floret of its nectar, the floret turns brown and shrivels, thus ensuring that bees only visit unfertilized florets.

Red clover - Trifolium pratense

Red clover is a very hardy plant, found almost everywhere in the northern hemisphere, from the Mediterranean to the Arctic circle, from the USA to central Europe. As the name implies, red clover has red or dark pink flowers. It is a typical member of the clover family, being similar, but slightly taller than, white clover. Red clover was elected to be the state flower of Vermont, even though it is not a native plant, due to its importance to the farming and honey industries there.

It is very important agriculturally because the roots fix nitrogen into the soil, thus enriching it, and the leaves, being rich in vitamin A and vitamin E, make nutritious fodder for sheep and cattle.

Medicinal use

Red clover tea* has been used traditionally in Chinese medicine and western folk medicine for countless centuries in the treatment of bronchitis and asthma, as a blood purifier and for skin conditions including eczema, acne and psoriasis. The tea can be applied as a compress for relief from arthritic pains and gout.

Medically, red clover is currently under the spotlight. Scientists have isolated many active constituents, including phenolic glycosides, salicylates, cyanogenic glycosides, coumarins and mineral acids. Red clover flowers have also been found to contain high amounts of isoflavone compounds, which have been shown to have estrogen-like properties, and are therefore often helpful to menopausal and perimenopausal women. Isoflavones are known to improve arterial function and are also being investigated in the fight against cancer, patricularly breast and protrate cancers. Modern scientific studies have found that a component, biochanin A, actively inhibits some cancer growth in vitro, although it is still too early to recommend as a general treatment for cancer.

* Red clover tea

  • Steep 6 dried red clover blossoms in 1 cup of boiling water for 15 mins.
  • Strain and sweeten with honey, if desired.
  • Drink 2-3 cups daily for 4 to 6 weeks.

Dried red clover tops are also available in capsules, tablets, and tinctures.

The only known side effect of using red clover is due to salicylates, chemicals capable of thinning the blood. While this is advantageous to many people, especially those eating a high-fat western diet, problems could arise if the patient is already taking a blood thinning drug such as warfarin. As with any complementary medicine, always check with your health care adviser before starting a new drug regime.

White clover or Shamrock - Trifolium repens

White clover is regularly planted as a forage crop but has become a nuisance weed, infesting lawns, orchards and landcaped gardens. It is low growing and bears white flowers. It has similar medicinal properties to red clover, but not so marked. It has been known to cause cyanotic or estrogenic (hormone) symptoms, especially in swine, as well as bloating when animals are unaccustomed to eating it.

White clover has its most famous incarnation as Shamrock, the Irish symbol of good luck which will ward off evil. The shamrock was used by Saint Patrick to demonstrate the Holy Trinity of the Christian faith, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Prior to Christianity, white clover was used as a charm against evil by the Celts and Druids

Four Leaf Clover

The four leaf clover is a mutation of the white clover which has 4 leaflets instead of 3. To this day it is supposed to be extremely fortuitous to find one, and it is traditional to pick it and press and dry it so that good luck will remain with you. The 4 leaves represent happiness, faith, love and inspiration (or God's Grace in the case of shamrock).

Subterranean clover - Trifolium subterraneum

Subterranian clover, or subclover, is widely used in hilly areas prone to very hot dry summers. It is planted as a forage crop alongside hardy grasses, especially in the sheep farming regions of Australia, the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, and in parts of California. It is an early crop, usually finished by mid-June, but can be harvested and dried without losing its nutritious quality.

Alsike clover - Trifolium hybridum

This is another white flowered clover, distinguishable from Trifolium repens by its more upright habit and longer leaves. It is grown as animal feed but care must be taken because some animals are susceptible to 'dew fever' caused by eating too much of this clover when the dew is still on it. The mechanism for the disease is unknown but the symptoms of diarrhea and colic do not occur if the animals are put out to graze after the dew has dried. Consumption of large quantities of alsike clover can also cause photodermatitis, causing animals to suffer from sunburn in areas of skin with low pigmentation, especially in newly shorn sheep. None of these problems occur when animals are fed dried alsike clover.

Strawberry clover - Trifolium fragiferum

This plant looks very similar to white clover until it blooms. The blooms are white or pink, but resemble a strawberry in shape. It flowers earlier than white clover and is very attractive to bees.

Crimson clover or Italian clover - Trifolium incarnatum

As the name suggests, this type of clover has beautiful dark red or crimson flowers. It is taller than other clovers and very hardy. It is a good forage crop and it is also often used for erosion control on roadsides and meadows due to its ability to grow through the winter months.