There are about 300 clover species worldwide. Although some species live in the mountains and in the tropics, most are found in the northern regions of the planet.
Under skies of blue the sweet smell of clover drifted through the camper and cab as we traveled the Richardson Highway from Paxson to Valdez. It was a welcome change from the haze of forest fires near Fairbanks and the gravel dust of the Denali Highway we had just left behind.
Three weeks earlier, in the midst of Minnesota's heat and humidity, we had noticed the same fragrance. However, it was not nearly as aromatic as it was in Alaska where we were traveling. This has been a wonderful year for well-known wild flowers, as well as others like clover, which tends to be overlooked because it's also a cultivated agricultural crop.
There are about 300 clover species worldwide. All are members of the bean/pea/legume family and the genus Trifolium, which refers to the three (trifoliate) leaves characteristic of most clovers. There are a few species with five or seven leaves, but those are rare.
Although some clovers live in the mountains and in the tropics, it's in northern temperature regions where the majority live and thrive. Other closely-related genera often called clovers include Melilotus (sweet clover) and Medicago (alfalfa or "calvary clover").
Most people are familiar with the flower heads, which are dense balls of small red, purple, white or occasionally yellow flowers. Seeds are small, few and enclosed in the calyx.
Minnesota is home to several species of clover that are often found in wildflower guides such as "Northland Wild Flowers" by Moyle and Moyle. White clover (Trifolium repens), sometimes called Dutch clover, is a low perennial whose creeping stems and rootstalks prefer open, grassy areas. Its white head resides on a slender, leafless stalk and becomes brown and droopy as it fades.
According to Moyle, it is probably the true Irish shamrock. White clover is a European species that is planted in pastures and lawns and has since its introduction, become widely naturalized. Alsike clover (T. hybridum) came from Alsike, Sweden. It is similar to the white, but has a pink flowers on upright leafy stems. It is notably fragrant and has also escaped from hayfields to roadsides.
A hardy taller species, red clover (T. pratense) has rounded, rosy-red heads, hairy stems and often sports a dark spot of the leaflets of the compound leaves. This Eurasian native is grown for forage and it too, has become naturalized.
Rabbit's-foot clover (T. arvense), yet another European transplant, is an annual with hairy stems and elongate, silky, gray heads of white or pink flowers. It, as well, is common along highways and byways. Hare's-foot trefoil is another name for this species.
The most widely cultivated clovers are the white and red. According to the Internet site Wikipedia (British-based), clover, either sown alone or in mixture with rye-grass, has been a long-time staple crop for several reasons. It grows freely, shooting up again after repeated mowing, produces an abundant crop, is palatable to and nutritious for livestock and grows in a great range of soils and climates.
In some regions, British farmers are finding that clover has either entirely disappeared by mid-spring, or is found only in capricious patches here and there over the field. No satisfactory explanation of this "clover-sickness" has yet been given, nor has any certain remedy been discovered.
However, an important fact is now well established: when crop rotations are managed so that clover does not recur at shorter intervals than eight years, it grows with much of its pristine vigor. The knowledge now has farmers varying their rotation so as to secure this important end.
At one time there was a somewhat prevalent belief that the introduction of beans into the rotation had a specific influence of a beneficial kind on the clover when it came next to be sown. But the true explanation seems to be that the beans operate favorably only by the incidental circumstance of almost necessarily lengthening the interval between the recurrences of clover.
Clover sickness may be linked to pollinator decline. Farmers have observed increased re-seeding occurs with increased bee activity. Consequently, beekeepers are often in heavy demand from farmers with clover pastures who want bees placed on their farms. In addition to agriculture, clovers are also used as food plants by the larvae of some butterflies.
On the human end, clovers are a valuable survival food, as they are high in protein, widespread, and abundant. They are not easy to digest raw, but this can be easily fixed by boiling for 5-10 minutes. Dried flower heads and seed pods may also be ground up into a nutritious flour and mixed with other foods or steeped in hot water to create a healthy, tasty tea.
While our fields of clover are well past their pleasant peak of aroma, I'll never smell them again without thinking of the day we absorbed the fragrance of those found along the Alaskan highway.
So here's wishing you "to be in clover," which means a carefree life of ease, comfort, or prosperity.
Sources: "Northland Wild Flowers" & Wikipedia
Andrea Lee Lambrecht, naturalist and outdoors photographer, can be reached at email@example.com
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