“To make a meadow you need a clover and a bee,” wrote 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson. “A clover, and a bee, and reverie …”
As a naturalist, I love Dickinson’s poems about the natural world. At the same time, I am plagued by the Naturalist Scientific Curiosity Syndrome (SCS). When I read these lines, the question pops into my head: “What kind of clover?” What kind of bee?
Indulging in this curiosity a bit, let’s take a look at shamrocks in the prairie state and see if shamrocks do, in fact, make a prairie.
The white clover is the first flower we learn in our childhood (along with the dandelion). It’s in the lawn, it’s plucked, and it’s pretty. Many generations of little girls have made floral wreaths and necklaces by tying the long stems of white clover together.
White clover flowers are grouped into a bouquet at the end of a single stem. If you look closely, you will see that each flower is shaped like a garden pea flower. Like peas, white clover belongs to the legume family.
The scientific name for white clover is Trifolium repens, but it also goes by other names. One name is the Dutch clover. T. repens was domesticated in the Netherlands, but its origins are in the Mediterranean region. Repens means to crawl. You may have faced the creeping habit of white clover as it is spreading all over your lawn.
A close relative of white clover is the red clover, Trifolium pratense. The Latin descriptor pratense means “of the meadow”. This is where you will find this plant – in meadows, old fields, pastures and wasteland.
The name of the genus Trifolium refers to the three leaves of these clovers. It is said that finding a Four Leaf Clover brings good luck, but you will be hard pressed to find a Four Leaf Trifolium.
Many species of Trifolium have been naturalized in temperate regions around the world. They were transported from their Eurasian home to all continents except Antarctica for use as fodder and cover crop. They help improve the soil by their ability to “fix” nitrogen, that is to say to make it available to plants. Their root systems also help hold the soil and prevent erosion.
Two other common clovers in Illinois are white and yellow sweetmeats. Some would say these are too common and not so sweet. Melilotus is the genus sweet clover, and the two species are alba, with white flowers, and officinalis, with yellow flowers.
These sturdy, bushy plants can grow to eight feet tall. Like white and red clover, they were introduced to North America from Eurasia for fodder. Flowers being the preferred source of nectar for honey bees, beekeepers welcome sweetmeats to their fields.
All of these Old World clovers have a long history of medicinal and cultural uses. Whether used as an infusion for fevers or as eye drops, as a cough tea or as a paralysis poultice, clovers were an ancient remedy for what aches you. There were also spiritual applications.
Nineteenth-century botanist MT Masters wrote in 1869 that red clover “was picked at night during the full moon by witches, who mixed it with verbena and other ingredients, while young girls looking for a pledge of perfect happiness were the quest for the plant during the day. “
A less questionable use of sweet clover is in the cheese industry. In Switzerland, sweet clover is added to the curd in the process of making an artisanal cheese known as Schabzieger.
Sweet potatoes have their virtues, but they are also full of vices. Both species are aggressive and easily invade open, sunny areas. They are resistant to winter and drought. They are prolific seeders.
According to the North Dakota State Library website, a sweet clover plant can produce more than 100 seeds. The seeds germinate easily in full sun. Those that do not germinate immediately are viable in the soil for more than two decades.
Fire, a management tool commonly used to control aggressive weeds in native grasslands, only encourages these clovers. They often grow vigorously after prairie burns. Thus, stubborn sweetmeats displace native grassland plants wherever they grow.
There are many non-native clovers, but are there any that actually belong to a prairie? Yes! There are a few large native shamrocks. And while Emily has certainly earned her poetic license, we know that to make a meadow you don’t need just any old clover, but the natives.
True “prairie clovers” are native to our prairies (are they all starting to sound the same?). The genus Dalea is represented by several species, in particular the red clover (D. purpurea).
This brightly colored prairie clover is in full bloom this week in the prairies of Kane County. Bright magenta flowers surround the lower half of a central flower head. The entire flower head looks like a small purple tutu. White clover (D. candidum) is not as common as red clover, but it also sports the skirt.
A third species called prairie clover (D. foliosum) is extremely rare. According to Plants of the Chicago Region by Floyd Swink and Gerould Wilhelm, the prairie leafy clover is “one of the rarest plants in America, and is believed to have become locally extinct until its rediscovery by [Wilhelm] in 1974. “
There is a record of leafy prairie clover in Kane County, but finding this plant would be a “eureka!” to live.
Finally, there are the bush clovers. These belong to the genus Lespedeza. You will likely find round-headed clover (L. capitata) in our local grasslands. This tall plant likes the dry, often growing in sandy or gravelly soil. The modest, cream-colored flowers don’t have the jaw-dropping factor of purple prairie clover, but round-headed clover is a beautiful plant native to the prairies. Its peak flowering period is from late summer to early fall.
There is a whole world of shamrocks. Each type is useful and each is pretty in itself. The next time you walk in a field, look around and you will surely see a clover or two. Add a bee and a little daydreaming – and Mrs. Dickinson will smile from above.
• Valerie Blaine is Kane County Forest Preserve District Naturalist. You can reach her at [email protected]