This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Trifolium repens, or White Clover. Also called common clover or shamrock (depending on what country you’re in), white clover is usually upstaged by its much showier and somewhat more medicinally useful big brother, red clover. But today we hope to show that white clover has just as much of a rightful place in the pantheon of useful plants as red clover does, and has a wide array of edible and medicinal uses.
White clover is a perennial herbaceous forb that reproduces sexually by seeds or asexually by underground rhizomes. Like Redbud, last week’s edible, it’s also a legume. Just shows how diverse the pea family is… forest trees and pasture forbs in the same group of plants. It’s yet another example of a common and tenacious lawn “weed” that’s far more useful than the grass that grows around it – it can take over a lawn in the span of a few short years and choke out less hardy grass entirely. Some folks have circumvented this process and are actually planting white clover as a lawn replacement… a smart idea, in my opinion. It makes a nice, lush green carpet of foliage, can handle being walked on, doesn’t need to be constantly fed and watered, and rarely ever needs to be mowed. Clover is also a rightly popular choice as a cover crop for food plots and gardens, as it’s a nitrogen fixer – like other legumes, it has a unique superpower of pulling nitrogen from the air and into the ground, enriching the soil for all of the other plants growing around it. In case you missed that, it literally creates fertilizer out of thin air. Pretty cool stuff. It’s also a prime honey plant. Bees absolutely love it, and clover honey is some of the best around.
White clover is easy to identify, and has no deadly or toxic mimics. It grows no more than six inches tall (not including flower stalks), and has three (or sometimes four!) tiny half-inch long leaves arranged in a symmetrical pattern, facing flat towards the sun. In the summer, it sends up flower stalks with half-inch diameter greenish-white compound flowers. It is native to northern Europe (particularly Ireland…) and has been widely naturalized in temperate areas throughout the world. It can be found in almost every U.S. state where its habitat needs are met – it likes open, sunny areas like fields, pastures, lawns, roadsides, abandoned home sites, and open woods. It needs a decent bit of water, and unlike most plants, prefers heavy clay soils with a high iron content. This soil preference explains why it’s one of the most popular cover crops in Georgia… clover thrives in our red clay, where most plants struggle.
Clover is one of the premier lawn edibles in our area. The flowers are probably the tastiest part. They’re full of nectar and have a slight vanilla flavor. The leaves are pretty good too, although not as sweet as red clover. They have a stronger and grassier flavor. They’re great raw in a salad mixed with other greens, but also cooked in a variety of ways. It does well added to soups and stews, or any recipe that calls for spinach. Like chickweed a few weeks ago, clover is best added in the last few minutes of the cooking process. Its thin leaves cook very quickly and you don’t want to overcook it. Dried clover leaves and flowers have a very delicate vanilla flavor. In pioneer days, it was used as a vanilla substitute in baked goods. A tea made from the dried leaves and flowers and sweetened with clover honey is delicious as well as medicinal. Clover is a highly nutritious plant – like all legumes, it’s a great source of protein, hence its popularity as pasture forage. What’s good for cows is good for us, in this case anyway. This makes it highly valuable as a wilderness survival food. Protein is pretty scarce out in the wild, so finding a source of it that you don’t have to track down and kill can be a huge advantage in your quest to stay alive. Clover is also high in beta carotene (great for your eyes), B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, biotin, and choline. Before you eat clover (or any wild edible for that matter) always refer to the guidelines of the universal edibility test. For some reason that I haven’t been able to research yet, white clover is a fairly common allergy with different people exhibiting different degrees of severity. So take it slow until you can figure out how the plant affects you.
White clover is an underappreciated but useful medicinal plant. The leaves and flowers are what you’re looking for, as they both have the active chemical complexes that are responsible for healing. An infusion of the dried leaves and flowers serves to fight colds and fevers, serving as an expectorant and febrifuge. A tea made from it has traditionally been used to cleanse the blood – useful for preventing gout and kidney problems. The Cherokee swore by it to prevent what was known then as Bright’s disease, and we now call kidney stones. The tea is also useful externally as an eye wash to treat eye infections such as pinkeye.
One place where white clover grows abundantly and has become intertwined as part of the national culture is Ireland. A lot of y’all are probably going to wear something emblazoned with a shamrock while you day-drink green beer this weekend, so where does that symbolism come from? First off, the word shamrock comes from the Irish Gaelic word seamrog, meaning “little clover.” It has held spiritual meaning and power for as long as history has been recorded in Ireland. The three leaves of white clover held significance with pagan Druid priests for millennia – it symbolizes the Three Goddesses that form the cornerstone of ancient Celtic mythology. The number three was considered significant in other ways as well. Clover could symbolize, among other things: past, present, and future, land, sea, and sky, and much more. So when Saint Patrick began his work to convert the pagan Celts to Christianity in the 5th century A.D., the three leaves of white clover were one of his most powerful tools. The Druid priests already considered it sacred and endowed with great power, so Patrick used it to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity – how the three leaves growing from one stem symbolized Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one triune God. It was also used to show the prime virtues of faith, hope, and love. Apparently it worked. By the time of Patrick’s death in approximately 493, most of Ireland had converted to Christianity. The shamrock has been a symbol for Ireland ever since. During various phases of the British occupation, wearing or displaying a shamrock was a capital crime, punishable by death, as it was sign of Irish nationalism and cultural pride. So the shamrock became a symbol of rebellion, worn proudly by Irish freedom fighters attempting to throw off the oppressive English rule. Upon Ireland’s independence in 1922, shamrocks were everywhere. They were emblazoned on everything Irish – a three-leaved middle finger to the British Crown for the whole world to see. So when you pour your Guinness, Smithwick’s, or Jameson this weekend, hoist a glass and drink to righteous rebellion!