White Clover

June 29, 2010 at 12:55 am Leave a comment

When kids hunt for four-leafed clovers, they’re usually searching through the clumps of White Clover (Trifolium repens) that blanket our lawns and parks. It’s hard to believe that a plant this common in our cities was absent from North America just a few hundred years ago. It’s yet another species that was brought here by European settlers.

As with many weeds, White Clover blurs the boundary between pest and friend. It spreads so well that it can displace native plants. However, White Clover is a member of the pea family, and like many of its relatives it performs an invaluable service.

Plants need nitrogen to grow — as do people, since without it we’d have no protein and no DNA. Unfortunately, the nitrogen floating around in the atmosphere is stuck in a form that’s useless to most living things. The roots of White Clover have round nodules that provide ideal housing for special bacteria, and these bacteria turn atmospheric nitrogen into useful nitrogen.

White Clover is a nutritious food for livestock and for wild browsers like deer. It’s a good plant for a lawn because it doesn’t need much mowing. Also, when insect pests destroy the grass, White Clover eagerly fills in the blank spaces.

So why call it a weed? Shockingly, there’s some evidence that White Clover might have been the victim of a slanderous marketing campaign in the 1940s. Companies that developed herbicides for lawns weren’t able to create a mixture that would spare White Clover but eliminate other weeds, so they declared it a weed, too. Innocent helper or nefarious invader? Our lawns are full of complicated characters.

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Entry filed under: Herbaceous plants.

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