[Guest post by Risa Edelstein]
I have a client who buys all organic food, uses an organic lawn care service, planted an edible garden long before they were trendy and is very ecologically conscious. Yet, she cannot seem to let go of the ideal of a perfect green lawn. Her biggest pet peeve is clover and she gets extremely upset when it inevitably appears.
Her intense dislike of clover got me thinking about the actual ecological value of this so-called weed. I had never truly researched it and was interested in finding out whether clover was native or not (I had conflicting information) considering that it shows up in just about every lawn at this time of year and makes it way into most disturbed site in the area.
My first point of reference was a recently published book by Peter Del Tredici titled “Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast”. Peter is a well respected Research Scientist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. His book covers every imaginable plant you would expect to find in the Northeast in an urban area, including invasives. He created quite a stir with this book since he lists the ecological function of every plant regardless of whether they are invasive or not. I find the book a great reference for plant ID but unfortunately it lacks information about the ecological value for wildlife. For this, I searched the web and my usual sources online.
The two clovers that are of interest for alternative lawns include Red Clover or Trifolium pratense and White Clover or Trifolium repens.
Red Clover is from Europe and reaches 18”, much taller than White Clover which stays low at 8” and is actually ideal for a low-grow lawn. Honeybees and bumblebees pollinate red clover and their flowers are produced from May – October which is relatively long for a perennial. Adaptable to many soil types, Red Clover as well as white clover fix nitrogen which is a plus for soil fertility. The USDA database map pretty much shows that Red Clover’s reach is the entire US – so there’s really no getting rid of it. You often see this plant on the roadside where mowing is limited or in unmaintained fields.
White Clover is from Eurasia and was introduced a long time ago as a source of forage and hay by the farming community. Pollinators love it and it’s mainly long-tongues bees that visit to collect pollen or suck nectar because of the shape of the flower. Many caterpillars use it as a food source and its foliage and seeds are eaten by birds, including wild turkey. The USDA map shows it everywhere as well, so again – no way to get rid of it.
While clover is not native, white clover seems to have tremendous wildlife value and apparently the flowers are even edible. Due to it’s height, it’s ideally suited for alternative lawns. Perhaps the fact that the flowers are edible may make it more appealing to my client and perhaps change her mind. In my opinion, a lawn covered with white clover buzzing with pollinators is beautiful! What makes most of America cringe when they see that? How did we get brainwashed into thinking a green carpet is the ideal and what could we do to change this perception? Support alternative lawn’s and let your clover grow!
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