White Clover

Common White Clover;
aka, Dutch Clover

"The bees in the clover are making honey,
& I am making my hay:
The air is fresh, I seem to draw
a young man's breath today."

-John James Piatt


Trifolium repens, the common perennial or biennial White Clover, is one of the most successful introduced species, having spread from Europe to most temperate & subtropical zones around the globe. Fortunately it is of exceeding usefulness & has been a boon for agricultural societies.

In the Pacific Northwest, clovers generally & white clover in particular are among the most important forage plants for wild & domestic ruminants, & a favorite for honey production. It is not the least unexpected, however, to see growing in the same field together multiple species of clovers, including the teency yellow Hops Clover & the large Purple Clover.

White Clover is found in meadows & pastures & along roadsides. It is intentionally planted along with grasses to enrich pastures for cattle, horses, sheep, or goats. It is also cultivated in poor soil during crop rotations, as clovers help set nitrogen, & a season of clover dominance will improve commerical crops in years to follow. A beneficial bacteria, Rhizobium trifolii, lives in symbiosis with white clover. This "nodule bacteria" takes in atmospheric nitrogen which is what becomes fixed into the soil. Clovers tend to thin out when soil becomes richest, but moves in to improve soils that have become depleted.

It inevitably invades lawns to the distress of lawn-nazis who believe there is room only for one species in their turf. But it really doesn't take much a mental adjustment to realize how pleasant clover really is, both in terms of its physical beauty & the good deeds it has done for humanity.

They spread not only by self-seeding, but along creeping prostrate stolons that root at every node. Often an attempt to weed clovers out of a garden results in their further flourishing, as every remaining root, stolon, or node produces a new plant.

Throughout its world-wide range, white clover has developed many natural variant forms, which break down into three main groups. First is the small-leafed wild white clover, second is the medium-sized leaf called "Dutch" white clover, & third are large-leafed forms called Ladino clover. A long walk through any clovered neighborhood could well find examples of all three. In our area Dutch White Clover is the most immediately noticeable.

White Clover is the most common clover to produce four-leafed sports. If a four-leafed clover were collected root & all, it can become a regular little dynamo of lucky-clover foliage. In a Seattle park I used to visit regularly before I moved to the other side of Puget Sound, there was a plethora of T. repens minus or little-leafed wild white clover with four leaves. Northwest poet & short story writer Ella Higginson (1861-1940) described the meaning of the four-leafed clover thus:
"One leaf is for hope, & one is for faith,
And one is for love, you know,
And God put another in for luck,
If you search, you will find where they grow."
There are several cultivated varieties that are bit more restrained & have special features that make them more interesting as intentional garden plants, the most famed likely being T. repens 'Purpurascens Quadrifolium' or its improved version T. repens 'Dark Dancer' with purple rather than green leaves, & with four rather than three leaves. We have also an intraspecies hybrid, T. repens 'Dragon's Blood,' with crimson in its unusual variegated leaves. But even the common weed is attractive for the leaves & blossoms.


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