Red Clover – Nitrogen Fixer and Gentle Tonic – Weekly Weeder #4

Red clover, Trifolium pratense - range and identification, wildlife uses, harvesting and using red clover for food and medicine.

Welcome to the Weekly Weeder series. This week's weed is Red clover, Trifolium pratense. (Trifolium means “three leaves”.) Native to Europe, red clover was introduced to North America as a fodder crop. It has now naturalized throughout the Americas, Australia and many other parts of the world. Red clover is a legume, and adds nitrogen to the soil, enriching it for other crops.

Range and Identification of Red Clover

Where does red clover grow?

Red clover is still cultivated in many areas, but it can also found in old fields, pastures, roadsides and in gardens. It prefers full sun and tolerates a range of moisture levels and soil types. It is a perennial, so it comes back year after year. Like most weeds, seeds can stay dormant for many years before sprouting.

Red Clover USDA range map

Source: USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

Red Clover Identification

Red clover plants are 6-24″ tall and spread into a leafy clump of foliage. Leaves are 3 lobed, like the rest of the clover family, 1/2-2″ wide. Each leaf is marked by a white chevron in the shape of a “V”. Leaves are attached in an alternating pattern up the stem. Flowers are formed at or near the top of the stem. Each “clover blossom” is a composite of many (50-100) small tubular flowers. The flower clusters are roughly 1″ across and pink-purple in color.

Red clover, Trifolium pratense - range and identification, wildlife uses, harvesting and using red clover for food and medicine.

Wildlife Uses of Red Clover

Our clover is always visited by bees and butterflies, and the wild rabbits and deer enjoy it as a snack. Heck, almost everything enjoys red clover. Illinois Wildflowers gives am excellent summary many of the critters that enjoy a clover feast:

The nectar and pollen of the flowers attract many kinds of long-tongued bees, including bumblebees, Anthophorine bees, mason bees, and large leaf-cutting bees (Megachilini tribe). Butterflies, skippers, and day-flying Sphinx moths also visit the flowers for nectar. Typical visitors among the butterflies include Swallowtails, Monarchs, Painted Ladies, Whites, and Sulfurs. The caterpillars of several butterflies feed on the foliage, including Everes comyntas (Eastern Tailed-Blue), Colias eurytheme (Orange Sulfur), Colias philodice (Clouded Sulfur), and Colias cesonia (Dog-Faced Sulfur). The caterpillars of many moth species feed on the foliage of this and other Trifolium spp. as well (see Moth Table).

Both the seedheads and foliage are eaten occasionally by upland gamebirds, including the Ruffed Grouse, Greater Prairie Chicken, Wild Turkey, and Ring-Necked Pheasant. Similarly, many small mammals eat the seedheads and/or foliage, including the Cottontail Rabbit, Groundhog, Thirteen-Lined Ground Squirrel, and Meadow Vole. Among the hoofed browsers, the foliage of Red Clover is readily eaten by deer, horses, cattle, and sheep. The value of Red Clover to wildlife and domestic animals is high.

Red Clover as Food

Eat young leaves and blossoms fresh in salad. One of my favorite summer garden nibbles is fresh blossoms. Simply pick a flower, pull out a cluster of the tiny flowers, and suck the nectar out of the base. It's a tiny treat, but sweet and delicious.

The blossoms are also used to make clover jelly, teas, mead, syrup and other edible flower fare.

This red clover jelly recipe is one way to use an abundance of clover blossoms.

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Red Clover Jelly

This red clover jelly recipe is one way to use an abundance of clover blossoms.

Delicate red clover jelly recipe made with fresh clover blossoms.

  • Author: Laurie Neverman

Ingredients

  • 2 cups packed clover blossoms, no leaves, no stems
  • 2 1/2 cups boiling water
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice – fresh is great if you have it
  • 4 cups sugar
  • One box Sure-jell powdered pectin

Instructions

First, infuse the blossoms in the water. Place the blossoms in a heat resistant container and pour the boiling water over. Allow them to steep 8 hours or overnight.

When ready to can, sterilize four 8-ounce jars or eight 4 ounce jars, keep hot. Heat lids and rings in hot water, keep warm but not boiling. Fill water bath canner and bring to boil.

Strain the flowers out of the water. Squeeze dry. You should have 2 1/4 cup infused water. Add more water if needed. I allowed the strained liquid to sit in the refrigerator overnight, and then poured it off carefully. This allowed some of the particles to settle out of the infusion, resulting in a clearer jelly.

Place the flower infusion, lemon juice and pectin in a large heavy bottom pot. Bring to a rolling boil. Add sugar all at once, return to boil. Boil for one minute, stirring constantly. Skim foam if needed. Remove from heat.

Ladle jam into sterilized jars leaving 1/4″ headspace. Wipe rims clean and screw on the lids. Process for 10 minutes in water bath canner (add 1 minute for every 1,000 feet above sea level). Remove jars from canner and allow to rest until cool (I prefer overnight) before removing rings, wiping any drips and labeling for storage.

Makes around 4 half pint jars or 8 – 4 ounce jars.

Red Clover as Medicine

Like many “weeds”, clover has medicinal properties and very few side effects. The University of Maryland Medical Center gives and overview of clover's medicinal properties:

Medicinal Uses and Indications:

Red clover is a source of many nutrients including calcium, chromium, magnesium, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, thiamine, and vitamin C. Red clover is a rich sources of isoflavones (chemicals that act like estrogens and are found in many plants).

Treatment

Cardiovascular health
Researchers theorize that red clover might help protect against heart disease, but studies in humans have not found strong evidence. Red clover isoflavones have been associated with an increase in “good” HDL cholesterol in pre- and postmenopausal women, but other studies show conflicting evidence. One study found that menopausal women taking red clover supplements had more flexible and stronger arteries (called arterial compliance), which can help prevent heart disease. Red clover may also have blood-thinning properties, which keeps blood clots from forming. It appears to improve blood flow.
Menopause
Researchers also think that isoflavones, like those found in red clover, might help reduce symptoms of menopause because of their estrogen-like effects. But so far studies have not been conclusive. Several studies of a proprietary extract of red clover isoflavones suggest that it may significantly reduce hot flashes in menopausal women. The largest study, however, showed no such effect.
Osteoporosis
As estrogen levels drop during menopause, a woman's risk for developing osteoporosis (significant bone loss) goes up. A few studies suggest that a proprietary extract of red clover isoflavones may slow bone loss and even boost bone mineral density in pre- and perimenopausal women. But the evidence is preliminary, and more research is needed to say for sure.
Cancer
Based on its traditional use for cancer, researchers have begun to study isoflavones from red clover. There is some preliminary evidence that they may stop cancer cells from growing or kill cancer cells in test tubes. It's been proposed that red clover may help prevent some forms of cancer, such as prostate and endometrial cancer. But because of the herb's estrogen-like effects, it might also contribute to the growth of some cancers, just as estrogen does. Until further research is done, red clover cannot be recommended to prevent cancer. Women with a history of breast cancer should not take red clover.
Other uses
Traditionally, red clover ointments have been applied to the skin to treat psoriasis, eczema, and other rashes. Red clover also has a history of use as a cough remedy for children.

Dosage and Administration:

Red clover is available in a variety of preparations, including teas, tinctures, tablets, capsules, liquid extract, and extracts standardized to specific isoflavone contents. It can also be prepared as an ointment for topical (skin) application.

Pediatric

Red clover has been used traditionally as a short-term cough remedy for children. Products containing isolated red clover isoflavones are very different than the whole herb, however, and are not recommended for children. Do not give a child red clover without talking to your pediatrician first.

Adult

Dose may vary from person to person, but general guidelines are as follows:

  • Dried herb (used for tea): 1 – 2 tsp dried flowers or flowering tops steeped in 8 oz. hot water for 1/2 hour; drink 2 – 3 cups daily
  • Powdered herb (available in capsules): 40 – 160 mg per day, or 28 – 85 mg of red clover isoflavones
  • Tincture (1:5, 30% alcohol): 60 – 100 drops (3 – 5 mL) three times per day; may add to hot water as a tea
  • Fluid Extract (1:1): 1 mL three times per day; may add to hot water as a tea
  • Standardized red clover isoflavone extracts: directions on product labels should be carefully followed
  • Topical treatment (such as for psoriasis or eczema): an infusion, liquid extract, or ointment containing 10 – 15% flowerheads; apply as needed unless irritation develops. Do not apply to an open wound without a doctor's supervision.

Although some red clover isoflavones are being studied for a variety of conditions, it is important to remember that extracts of red clover isoflavones are very different from the whole herb. In fact, they represent only a small, highly concentrated part of the entire herb.

Precautions:

Side Effects

No serious side effects from red clover have been reported in people taking red clover for up to one year. General side effects can include headache, nausea, and rash. However, animals that graze on large amounts of red clover have become infertile.

Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not take red clover.

Interactions and Depletions:

Red clover may interfere with the body's ability to process some drugs that are broken down by liver enzymes. For that reason, you should check with your doctor before taking red clover.
Estrogens, hormone replacement therapy, birth control pills — Red clover may increase the effects of estrogen.
Tamoxifen — Red clover may interfere with tamoxifen.
Anticoagulants (blood thinners) — Red clover may enhance the effect of these drugs, increasing the risk of bleeding. The same is true of herbs and supplements that have blood-thinning effects (such as ginkgo, ginger, garlic, and vitamin E).

I keep a stock of dried clover blossoms and other homegrown/wildcrafted medicinals in my pantry for regular use.

Note: All material in this post is for informational purposes only and is not meant to take the place of a trained healthcare provider.

Recommended Resources:

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Red clover, Trifolium pratense - range and identification, wildlife uses, harvesting and using red clover for food and medicine.

Originally published in 2011, updated in 2017.

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