Red Clover, White Clover, Let the Bees Come Over

[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!

[Risa Edelstein is an ecological landscape designer. She is currently the President of the Ecological Landscaping AssociationConnect with Risa on LinkedIn]

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Comments

  1. Kelly Bennett says

    I threw crimson clover seeds out into a newly made flower bed that I didn’t have time to plant this spring, and then cleared small spaces in the resulting ground cover of clover to plant as I had time. It all worked out nicely, and now the clover itself is blooming as well as all the “real’ plants, and making quite a show. Bees are busy there all day, its their favorite area of the garden.

  2. James Hitz says

    There can be several reasons why people would not want clover. Only people allergic to bee stings have a good reason. The others as you state are appearance, visiting people are afraid of bees or are lawn purists and lots of people want to walk bare-foot without watching where they are going.

  3. Lynne says

    Funny you should mention that clover isn’t native – neither is lawn grass. I have let the clover run wild in my “lawn” alongside the dandelions which are also excellent for the pollinating population. Some dandelions are native to some areas of North America (check Bonap.org)

  4. says

    USDA recognizes both Trifolium pratense and Trifolium repens as introduced. I’m an “all native plant” moving forward kinda gal, so I would question why someone would choose an introduced species, and an somewhat agressive one at that? While the bees may love it, grubs just love an introduced lawn, and they have an important role in biodiversity as well, yet no one is encouraging lawns. My money is on native choices which would belong.
    Loret recently posted..The Blur of the Butterfly — Missed Opportunity

    • Edward says

      I am moving in an “all Native” direction, and have been looking for a native clover substitute for New England, but honestly can’t find one. The genius of clover is it is a nitrogen fixer (thus reducing the need for chemical fertilizer), produces flowers that bees like, and can survive regular mowing. I can’t find any New England native that has all three features that I can buy commercially. If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. There are some clovers that grow on the great plains, but I’m not sure if they really count as “Native” in my area and I’m not sure if they would survive mowing. There are obviously many wildflowers you can use in a lawn but most couldn’t survive mowing and don’t fix nitrogen.

      The decline in the use of clover in lawns has been matched by a rise in the use of fertilizers and a decline in bees. The clover lawn may not be ideal, but I think it is preferable to the grass monoculture regularly doused with chemical fertilizers.

      • Cris Wentz says

        I gotta tell you, its a case of “cant beat ‘em, so I’ll join ‘em”. I have a beautiful front yard ( my husband insists on grass)…its just full of violets both white and purple, creeping jenny, plantain, white clover, and garlic greens. Ok, the last wont stay long, becuase I really did drop a LOT of garlic bulblets when I was harvesting them this summer. My local bees stay very happy, when I figure in the natives in my beds.

  5. says

    I’m actually a fan of clover, even as a native plant enthusiast. My grassy areas are remnants of a lawn, and thus frequently overrun with chickweed, prostrate knotweed, and bermudagrass, and until I get to the point where I kill the entire thing down to dirt and work out a replacement, clover’s the best thing for it. It may not be native, but it’s good for pollinators and cuts down on the much much worse thugs that are lurking in there.

    One of those not-letting-the-perfect-be-the-enemy-of-the-good situations…
    UrsulaV recently posted..Alive! But wilted!

  6. says

    Ironically, clover seed used to be included in grass seed mixtures and was regarded as good for your lawn. All this changed when the new herbicides (aimed at removing all broad leaved “weeds” from lawns) were found out to kill clover. All of a sudden the industry started calling it a weed. Why do we let them manipulate us this way?
    It is true that the two clovers mentioned here, the most common ones, are non-native, but so are most of the grasses that constitute our lawns; so I don’t see any harm in letting them grow.
    But most significantly the USDA lists a number of other clovers which are native: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=TRIFO. Sadly, most of them are endangered or even have been extirpated from some regions. The more reason to try to bring them back to our gardens. Now, here is the difficult question: How can we accomplish that?
    Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Bees and vitamins

    • Edward says

      I did buy some purple prairie clover and scatter some seed around. It appears to be the only American clover available commercially in quantities sufficient for seeding a lawn. Unfortunately, it isn’t really native to my state, and I question how well it would survive mowing. It looks pretty, so fingers crossed. I’d love to find a place I could buy Buffalo Clover or California Showy Clover seed in quantity. HINT: When buying clover or other legumes, be sure to buy the symbiotic rhizobium bacteria it needs to fix nitrogen.

      I wish someone would create a farm to grow native clovers and sell the seeds in bulk. It shouldn’t be a difficult project. I’d fund that Kickstarter.

  7. Amanda says

    I’ve got masses of wild plants in my lawn but the lush grass often crowds them out. How can I get the wild plants to grow instead of the grass? I let a large area alone one year and didn’t mow at all. All I got for my trouble was thick clumps of lush grass. No wild flowers at all. If anyone has any ideas I’d be grateful. When we have a dry summer the wild plants usually flourish but as soon as the rains come, so does the grass. By the way the only areas I didn’t have much grass growth was where there was a lot of clover (gorgeous stuff, bees absolutely love it to bits). It’s also edible too.

  8. Michelle says

    I love clover and bees, but am allergic to bee stings. I let the clover grow free in the front lawn where i dont walk without shoes. I try try to avoid letting it grow in the back though where i like to walk without socks/shoes. If i had children i would pull it all out, severe allergies are common in my family. Although, i have been very slowly reducing my overall lawn anyway, so maybe there wont be any rear lawn left by the time i get around to children. ;)

  9. says

    so many great comments- from what I have heard white “dutch” clover can be mowed. red clover would be “no mow” type lawn alternative. Clover is found to have a lower allergen content than lawn grasses for those left to seed. both Clover and lawns are non native- so it a wash there. Clover needs less water. clover does not need chemicals to boost its appearance. both clover and lawns benefit from over seeding. Clover provide for bees. Just because grass lawns have become a standard doesn’t mean they have to stay that way, each of us are a point of change. I am looking to providing lawn alternatives to my clients- this is one of them for good reason.

  10. David says

    FWIW, if you want to attract honeybees, their tongues can’t reach the nectar in red clover. Bumblebees can though.

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