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Trifolium pratense (red clover)

Red clover is grown widely across the world as a forage crop for livestock and poultry and has also been used in folk medicine.

Trifolium pratense flowering head

Trifolium pratense flowering head (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Common name: 

red clover

Conservation status: 

Very common species with no threat status.

Habitat: 

Wet and dry grassland, woodland, forest margins, field borders and paths, widely planted as pasture.

Key Uses: 

Fodder for livestock, soil improvement, attracting insects, honey production, medicinal.

Known hazards: 

Generally recognised as safe (US Food & Drug Administration). However, caution is advised in some instances - more information below.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Rosanae
Order: 
Fabales
Family: 
Leguminosae/ Fabaceae - Papilionoideae
Genus: Trifolium

About this species

Commonly known as red clover in many parts of the English speaking world, Trifolium pratense is extensively grown as a forage crop for pasturage, hay and green manure, and is reported to be excellent for livestock and poultry. The species is a nitrogen-fixer and has long been used in crop rotation systems to enrich the soil. Several novel varieties and subspecies of the plant have been described, but its infraspecific (ie within the species) classification is complex. Red clover has been widely used in folk medicine for conditions ranging from athlete’s foot to constipation. An extract of the flowers has been used for cancerous ulcers and corns. Red clover contains isoflavones and a herbal product sold in tablet form is taken by women during and after the menopause.

Genus: 
Trifolium

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Native to Europe and Northern Asia. Widely cultivated as a forage plant across the world. Full distribution information is available from the International Legume Database and Information Service (ILDIS).

Description

Perennial, sometimes biennial herb; leaves with three leaflets, basal leaves with a long leaf stalk, upper leaves with a shorter or no stalk. A pair of stipules at the leaf base partly clasp the leaf stalk but have free tapering tips. The flowering head is short-stalked or stalkless and comprises many flowers which are about 10-15 mm long and a rose-purple colour (there is also a creamy-white form). The bell-shaped calyx is characteristically 10-veined and has 5 linear lobes (often referred to as calyx teeth); the petals are about twice the calyx length. The small oblong-ovoid fruit pod is retained within the withering flower and opens to shed the seeds.

Trifolium pratense, flowering head (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Threats and conservation

No threat, no conservation measures needed but red clover is attacked by many fungi, sometimes causing serious losses.

Uses

Red clover is used as fodder for livestock and poultry. It is planted in pastures with grass, or fed to animals as hay and silage. It is also used as a cover crop and green manure for soil improvement; it suppresses weeds and boosts nitrogen levels in the soil while the root system improves the soil structure.

Red clover attracts a variety of insects and is useful for improving the biodiversity of agricultural systems, and can be used as a bee plant for honey production.

A tea of the flowering heads and various other topical preparations of the plant have been used for medicinal purposes in Europe. Red clover has been widely used in folk medicine for conditions ranging from athlete’s foot to constipation. An extract of the flowers has been used for cancerous ulcers and corns. Red clover contains isoflavones and a herbal product sold in tablet form is taken by women during and after the menopause.

Known hazards

Red clover is generally recognised as safe (US Food & Drug Administration). However, caution should be exercised in taking isoflavone-containing herbal products from Trifolium pratense if some prescription medicines are being taken, particularly in some hormone therapies and for blood-thinning. Red clover products should also be avoided during pregnancy and lactation.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: 46
Seed storage behaviour: Orthodox (the seeds of this plant survive being dried without significantly reducing their viability, and are therefore amenable to long-term frozen storage such as at the MSB)
Germination testing: Successful
Composition values: Oil content 8.5-8.6%, Protein 36.2-38.1%

Flowers of Trifolium pratense

Cultivation

Grown from seed and sometimes planted with grass seed; clover-grass hay cures more rapidly than pure clover hay, and produces more hay per hectare. Animals are more likely to bloat on pure clover hay than clover-grass hay. Red clover and red clover-grass pastures can be grazed or cut green and fed to livestock and poultry. Red clover is one of the better legume species for renovating old pastures and is widely used in crop rotation systems.

The flowers are bee-pollinated and a seed crop can be harvested 25 to 30 days after full bloom by which time the flower heads have turned black.

References and credits

Barnes, J., Anderson, L.A., Phillipson, D. (2007) Herbal Medicines (3rd Edn.). Pharmaceutical Press

Duke, J. A. (1981). Handbook of Legumes of World Economic Importance. Plenum Press, New York and London.

Lewis, G., Schrire, B. Mackinder, B. & Lock, J. M. (eds) (2005). Legumes of the World. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Lust, J. B. (1986). The Herb Book. Bantam, Toronto.

Managing Cover Crops Profitability 3rd edn.(2007). Sustainable Agriculture Network, Beltsville. 

Kew Science Editor: Gwilym Lewis
Kew contributors: Sustainable Uses Group
Copy editing: Kew Publishing

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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