Author’s Note: This post originally appeared on the SARCRAFT Blog on 5/23/18
Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Trifolium pratense, or Red Clover. We covered its close cousin White Clover a few months ago, but red clover is its own plant entirely. Although closely related, it’s a far more powerful medicinal herb that may hold a legitimate cancer treatment in its leaves. And like chickweed or plantain, in addition to being medicinally valuable, red clover is another one of those wild edibles that is worth knowing no matter where you live, since it can be found anywhere on earth.
Red clover is a herbaceous perennial forb. A member of the huge and diverse pea family, it’s closely related to peas, beans, vetch, other clovers, and even trees like the redbud. Much larger than white clover, it grows up to 30” tall on long, hairy stems with alternate branching. It has a much rangier, open growth habit than others in its family. Its leaves are palmate and arranged in groups of three (very rarely two, four, or more), hence the name of its genus. Individual leaves are up to an inch long, with a splotch of white in the middle of each and tiny, fine teeth on the margins. Red clover’s most distinguishing characteristic (and its namesake) is its flowers. They are globe-shaped and compound, composed of dozens of tiny tubular florets, sit at the end of a long flower stalk, and range from a light pink to a rich red. Bees and other pollinators love them. Red clover is the quintessential pasture forb. It loves open, sunny fields, roadsides, homesites, and occasionally very open woods. It’s not as common in lawns as white clover, since it is a little slower to establish and doesn’t handle mowing as well. It does best in rich, well-drained soil with high concentrations of calcium, potassium, and phosphorous, but it’s not picky.
No one really knows where red clover originates from. It’s native to somewhere in Eurasia, but has been naturalized for so long in so many places it’s difficult to tell. It established itself in North America with the first settlers, and quickly became a favorite of all Native American tribes who encountered it. Today, red clover is established on every single continent, including Antarctica. It grows above the Arctic circle and below the Antarctic circle, high above the treeline in alpine meadows, in the tropics, and on savannahs, prairies, and steppes. The only places it can’t thrive are in deserts and dense forests.
Red clover is a useful and highly nutritious edible. The most edible part of this edible is the flowers. Red clover flowers are sweet and full of nectar. They’re a great high-sugar energy boost in a wilderness survival situation, or a unique addition to a salad at home. Red clover leaves are arguably a superfood – they’re certainly valuable as a survival green. They can be eaten raw or cooked as a potherb, and have a mild flavor somewhat reminiscent of peas or beans. Being a legume, clover leaves are one of the highest plant sources of protein and fat in the Eastern Woodlands. This explains their presence in pastures: They’re a rich forage that’s great for growing beef or dairy cattle. They’re high in vitamins and minerals as well – clover leaves are rich in vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, and C, and E, as well as calcium, chromium, cobalt, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, silicon, sodium, and zinc.
So, more on that superfood thing… red clover blurs the lines between an edible and medicinal plants. What does that mean? Well, the medicinal value of many plants isn’t unlocked unless they’re turned into a tea, decoction, poultice, tincture, etc. Red clover is one of the few plants whose medicinal benefits are on the table, so to speak, when the plant is eaten. Red clover is rich in the phytoestrogens biochanin-A, formononetin, daidzen, and genistein, which fit in the body’s estrogen receptors and are proven to prevent breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. It’s telling that red clover has been used as a folk remedy for cancer for hundreds of years, and modern science has verified that the chemicals contained within it really do work to prevent and treat the growth of tumors. Red clover is also rich in tocopherols, a form of vitamin E which is known to reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol levels, which reduces the buildup of plaque on artery walls.
In traditional medicine, red clover was used internally to treat colds, whooping cough, pneumonia, and other respiratory issues. It was used as a detox tea to cleanse the blood and boost kidney function. It’s a digestive stimulant that can help sick patients get their appetite back, as well as treat constipation. Internally, the medicinally active part of the plant is the blossoms. Although they are effective fresh or dried, dried flowers can be used year round. Right now is a great time to pick them for use in infusions, decoctions, tinctures, and ointments all year. Externally, a poultice of clover is used for treating skin issues such as eczema or psoriasis. Although now only sold in herb shops and health food stores, clover preparations were once a common and popular medicine in the U.S., sold commercially into the 1930s as “Trifolium Compounds.” The herb continued to be listed as a clinically prescribed medication in the U.S. Pharmacopeia until 1946.
Like its close cousin white clover, red clover has a long history in European folklore. Pre-Christian pagans held the numbers 3, 6, and 9 in great importance, so naturally, the three-leaved clover came to symbolize many aspects of their life – earth, air, and water, birth, life, and death, etc. As Europe became Christian, the three leaves became a symbol of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Clover has always been considered a force for good, and it was common for medieval Christians to wear a locket of dried clover around their necks to protect them from evil spirits and ward off the charms of witches. A four-leaf clover was said to have even more power, and was occasionally eaten or consumed as part of a tea if it was believed someone was under a dark spell. However, a five-leaf clover was the opposite: It was worn or used in spells by witches to strengthen their dark powers. Probably because five-leaf clovers are really freaky-looking if you’ve ever seen one. And a two-leaf clover was innocent enough – if a young maiden placed it under her pillow at night, it was believed she would be shown in a dream who she would marry. Many families, especially those who had some affiliation with the Church, incorporated the clover leaf into their coat of arms.
It’s easy for us moderns to scoff at ancient people for using plant medicine to cure serious diseases, assuming those natural remedies to be woefully inadequate in light of modern synthetic pharmaceuticals. In some cases, that view is justified, such as using “cancerweed,” or lyre-leaf sage from a few weeks ago. However, it’s also true that these people had hundreds, even thousands of years of trial and error to learn what worked and what didn’t. They may not have understood why it worked, but they knew the use of every plant in their ecosystem. As medicine advances and more and more compounds are synthesized from natural sources, maybe it’s time we humbled ourselves and realized that the ancients knew what they were talking about.
Do any of you have any experience with red clover? Have you eaten clover flowers, or used them medicinally? Did we miss anything? Tell us in the comments!