One of the most unheralded, yet important, plants of agricultural merit is the little White Clover plant. The Irish seem to have understood its importance. The plant which England chose to represent itself, the Rose, is beautiful no doubt, but for the most part inedible to man and beast, and has thorns. The Welsh had more sense in choosing the Leak, a praiseworthy vegetable, but hardly something one can live off. And the Scots. What can be said of people that chose a Thistle to represent them? But the Irish, or perhaps St. Patrick in alluding to the Holy Trinity, chose the cloverleaf. Clover, along with some grass, can feed a people (well, their beasts). The Irish suffered a potato blight, but I fear, a clover blight would have been the end of them.
Fortunately White Clover is an outstandingly vigorous plant, incredibly resilient, and very productive. In some ways, it can be considered immortal. While individual White Clover plants may die, and in fact don’t live very long at all on average, they have the remarkable ability to “creep,” which is what the latin word Repens means in their taxonomic name: trifolum repens translates “creeping three leaves.” This creeping is simply the plants’ ability to issue lateral stems, or stolons, that take root and develop into another independent clover plant. Many plants have this ability, like strawberries, but none do it as aggressively as White Clover. If there is a gap where sunlight isn’t being consumed by some taller plant, you can be sure White Clover will be in there soon to make use of it. By constantly creeping the massive colony of White Clover in a pasture can live essentially forever. Only the darkest woods can overcome White Clover.
Despite its prodigious propagative ability, White Clover has incredibly vigorous seeds as well. I seeded all my pastures (over 7 acres) with just 10 pounds of seed, about enough to fill a gallon milk jug. The seeding rate for White Clover is usually listed at 2 pounds to the acre, and this isn’t seed catalog hype, like it is with many other plants (8 pounds per acre of Red Clover is certainly hype, I’ve never had good coverage with less than 12). Because of that ability to creep, any mistakes you make in applying the seed are easily forgiven, and may even go unnoticed. The seeds are small and round, so they fling quite nicely. They also do well frost seeded.
But all of this would be pretty unremarkable if it weren’t for the secret weapon that all clovers (and all legumes) possess. After all, Kentucky Bluegrass, Canarygrass, and Bromegrass all creep. The difference is the unique symbiotic relationship legumes developed with certain bacteria. The legume provides a home, and sugar, to the bacteria. The bacteria specialize in fixing atmospheric nitrogen into useable nitrate, the building block of amino acids (which make up protein), for the legume. These bacteria are called Rhizobia and they live in little visible nodules on the roots of legumes. It is not lost on me that this symbiosis parallels the beneficent symbiosis ruminant animals have with bacteria in their rumen which break down cellulose.
Rhizobia symbiosis makes a pasture with good legume content essentially self fertilizing. A healthy, balanced pasture will take in all the nitrogen it needs from the air. The only fertilizers that will be needed are occasional inputs of various elemental fertilizers. Small amounts of lime (to provide calcium and magnesium), granite (to provide phosphorus mainly), and potash (to provide potassium). One thing White Clover cannot tolerate is a lack of these elements or an improper pH, but just about any soil can be amended to make it hospitable to White Clover, and once this is done, the fertility of the soil is highly durable and improves with time. Grains, especially corn, only wear out a soil with time. White Clover restores.
Of great benefit is the automatic balancing of legumes and grasses in a healthy pasture. When the nitrogen availability is depleted the legumes will get the upper hand and outcompete the grasses, which cannot fix their own nitrogen. When the nitrogen is plentiful, the grasses, which grow faster, will get the upper hand on the legume. No legume competes with grass as effectively as White Clover. In fact, all the other legumes will eventually succumb to grass. Once they’ve brought the nitrogen level up, the grasses dominate, and the legumes die back. White Clover just waits, for it is immortal, and the time will come again when the nitrogen is depleted, and then it will spring forth.
Foreground is Red Clover in its first year, and in the background is Red Clover in its 3rd year. See how the grass comes to dominate! Even Alfalfa, the most persistent, eventually succumbs to grass like this. But not White Clover.
For decades my fields were in what is known as “continuous corn.” This is the practice of planting corn every year and applying every spring the exact amount of synthetic fertilizer that crop scientists say is removed from the field by the previous corn crop. This means the field is sprayed with highly soluble nitrogen fertilizer, which suppress the native nitrogen fixing bacteria. So, when I transitioned my fields to pasture, there was not much in the way of free-living nitrogen fixing bacteria in the soil. Pretty much the ONLY nitrogen fixing bacteria was the rhizobia hitching rides on the seed of the White Clover. This gave the clover such a competitive advantage verses any grass or forb out there that it resulted in nearly a monoculture of White Clover, which can be dangerous. As I’ve alluded to before, most legumes, and each of the big three (Alfalfa, White Clover, and Red Clover) can cause bloat in ruminant livestock, a fatal condition. The best prevention for bloat is to keep the legume content under 60% in a pasture and to plant only high-quality grasses. White Clover is one of the tastiest and most palatable plants, and cattle greatly prefer it. So if the grass out there is not so good, grasses like Orchardgrass and Fescue, only White Clover may be consumed. This is why I think Ryegrass and Bluegrass, the two most palatable grasses, should be well represented in a pasture.
Another benefit of White Clover is that in addition to being the ideal pasture legume, it is also the perfect Honey Bee forage plant. White Clover produces many flowers, and they bloom pretty much continuously from early Spring through the end of Fall, providing a steady stream of very neutral tasting nectar. The plants, being small and densely distributed, are highly efficient for honeybees. Instead of traveling great distances to gather nectar and return to the hive, they can hit nearly every flower in a small patch, load up, and head back. After all, a worker bee’s life is measured in miles, not time. They fly until their wings shred up. I am convinced the decline of honey bee populations is in part caused by decreasing use of White Clover in agriculture. Alfalfa, a much bigger plant, seems more productive to the farmer, so it is grown instead. Too bad Alfalfa is poor Honey Bee forage, and even Red Clover isn’t of much use to Honey bees, either. Alfalfa has a special relationship with the (useless) Alfalfa Leaf-cutter Bee, and Red Clover has a special relationship with (useless) Bumble Bees.
White clover is usually sold in three different kinds, or eco-types. There is dwarf or “Dutch” white clover, which is very diminutive plant. It is what is usually found in lawns. And there is Ladino, which is much larger. Ladino is almost as large as Red Clover. In between is standard White Clover, which I think is the best for most purposes. It is highly stoloniferous like dwarf, yet almost as large and productive as Ladino. It works as hay and as pasture. And there are improved varieties available. The one I have used, and have been extremely impressed with, is called Kopu II. Bred in New Zealand, it is very productive, surprisingly drought tolerant, and very stoloniferous. Incredibly economical as well. It is only about $5 per acre and can be essentially immortal. Only Kentucky Bluegrass is comparably frugal.