Clover: Learn Its Many Uses for Health, Forage and Food

Learn how you can use different species of clover for cover crops, hay, grazing, soil improvement and various health benefits.

by Dawn Combs
PHOTO: Dawn Combs

It was fair week in our county. We made a million and one trips back and forth to feed and water ducks. My son worked hard through his archery judging, showmanship and market classes. We ate the obligatory funnel cake and Texas tenderloin. As we left the barn one day, my son remarked that he suddenly understood why they named the group for young kids “Clover Buds.” Ever the child of a botanist, he had just realized that the name referred to the clover plant’s potential to burst forth and become a leaf, stem or flower.

I found his observation pretty cool. It got me thinking about all the potential in the clover family for our gardens, our animals, our plates and our medicine cabinets. I’ve written here at Hobby Farms before about white clover (Trifolium repens) and red clover (Trifolium pratense). But of course, just like the array of projects in 4-H, many clovers hold potential for practical use.

More than 300 species of clover can be found, mainly in temperature climates. They pretty much all have a similar trifoliate leaf pattern (unless you’re lucky). They differ in their hardiness, flower color and usage. Most can improve the health of the soil, but if you are a true expert you find that each one is suited to a different purpose. If you want to provide forage for grazing animals you quickly find that each species provides a different advantage.

Red Clover

Trifolium pratense or red clover (pictured above) is probably the most common clover you will read about. It is a very useful cover crop, fixing nitrogen in the soil and making any disturbed ground more fertile. In the human body, it can thin the blood. This means red clover helps people whose blood clots inappropriately or who have genetic disorders that give them “thick blood.” It is suited for grazing and as an important crop for hay.

White Clover

Trifolium repens, white clover, is so common that we trample it in the grass without noticing. White clover is an important aid in the lymphatic system and in the urinary tract. It fixes nitrogen in the soil like its red sister. It also has been shown to fix pyrene, a potentially harmful substance that can threaten fish and algae populations, making it a potential bioremediation tool. It tolerates being grazed nearly to the ground. It is hardy and can take quite a bit of abuse, but it doesn’t make a good addition to hay for winter feeding of animals.

Yellow Sweet Clover

Yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis) is a great protein source, and the leaves are edible. If this type gets moldy it can be a problem for grazing animals. It can cause uncontrollable bleeding, an amplification of its typical function as a blood thinner and anticoagulant. The whole plant has been used as an insect repellant, on the body and on fabric. It has traditionally been used for respiratory ailments such as a cough and for menstrual irregularities and discomfort.

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Crimson Clover

Crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum) is a common cover crop. It sports brilliant scarlet flowers and is often used to attract a variety of pollinators. This variety is typically what you find in packages of edible clover sprouts or micro greens at the grocery store. It grows best in cool weather and therefore makes a really nice fall and winter cover crop. It matures earlier than other clovers, making it a very useful crop for early grazing.

So many types of these plants exist, and they’re all so useful. Of course, being a long time 4-Her, I’ve always found this plant family special. I must admit to taking it a bit for granted. As an herbalist I learned about red clover and didn’t look any further for many years. Now as I learn more about taking care of larger animals that need to graze, it is obvious that I was missing a lot of the story.

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