Red clover monograph

Red Clover – Trifolium pratense – Fabaceae family.

Red clover is one of numerous leguminous plants to grow on the British Isles. Found almost everywhere, red clover helps feed the soil as well as us. Although only small in stature, this little member of the pea family could have a big role to play in our lives.

Red clover has long been used by people around the world, both as a food and medicine – we know it has been used in the ‘Western world’ since ‘classical’ times, but surely for far longer where-ever indigenous cultures have known of it.

It is a plant in the large genus Trifolium, alongside approximately 300 other species. Believed to have originated in Asia, red clover has spread far and wide through cultivation and passage on boats. This self-fertilising plant is now naturalised in most parts of the world.

The generic name literally translates from the Latin as ‘three-leaved’. The specific name pratense, is a much used scientific plant name for a plant and denotes the favourite habitat of meadows and fields.

The red clover can be found almost everywhere! Commonly on roadsides, hedge-banks, waste-grounds, and grassy areas in urban settings. Variably erect or low-growing, this perennial herb typically reaches 10-40 cm high and grows happily up to altitudes of 850 metres.Four leaved clovers find the lucky!

Well known by many for its trefoil appearance, on inspection the red clover has grey-green elliptical-oval leaflets with serrated margins. These typically reach 10-30 mm long. A more or less crescent-shaped white marking dominates the centre of the leaflet.

A distinctive feature of the species, aside from their trifoliate leaves, are the mainly globose, or oval shape of the flower heads. The red clover flower heads are approximately 30 mm long. The individual flowers are pink-purple coloured.

In the wild you may notice a variation in size of red clover leaves and flower heads. This is because many of the red clover varieties which escaped cultivation were bred to produce larger leaves and flowers. As with all peas, the individual flowers have their petals arranged in the characteristic banner, wings, and keel arrangement.

The whole plant is hairy, which is an identification key between this particular clover and others in the clover tribe. If you are serious about learning to identify plants then using the easy-to-remember patterns method can fast track your foraging fun.

When unearthed, the roots of clover are seen to be fibrous and will reveal tiny little swellings on them. These nodules are sites of bacterial infection by specialist bacteria.

They work symbiotically with the host plant and fix nitrogen gas from the atmosphere, all the while making it available in the soil to the host plant.

A number of different plant families have root / bacterial associations. The leguminous plants are by far the biggest family with this adaptation.

You may well find red clover flowering away on two occasions during the year. The first time is from May-June and then potentially once again in September.

Some authors have noted only to harvest red clover from the late spring / early summer appearance – due to the presence of possibly toxic substances in the flowers in the late summer. For absolute peace of mind, you may wish to do the same.

Parts used
Flowers. Leaves.

Flowers: Late April-June. Leaves: Spring is best. Click here for more fantastic wild foods of spring

Key constituents
Coumarins; isoflavones (genistein, pratensein); vitamin E; flavonoids; phenolic glycosides; salicylates; cyanogenic glycosides.

Anti-coagulant, alterative, lymphatic, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumour, oeastrogenic activity, expectorant, anti-spasmodic.

Pharmacology and uses
Some herbalists have called this robust little herb the ‘chief plant remedy’ for treating cancers. Since the 1930’s, interest has heightened over reports of red clover’s reported anti-cancer activity.

The discovery of the molecule genistein in red clover (found originally in the Gentiana genus) provoked renewed interest and research into a plant seemingly fit until then only for cattle fodder.

Red clover has had long standing use as an alterative herb, and with it, a reputation for helping to thin the blood. It is much valued for helping to clear cysts, and shift blocked, stagnating toxins, in specific lymphatic glands, most of which are in the neck.

This activity is partly due to the presence of blood thinning coumarin molecules, which are discussed in my article on medicinal plant constituents. Red clover’s coumarins assist the treatment of various skin disorders. Authors have referred to red clover as one of the most useful remedies for children with skin problems.

This plant has a long standing traditional indication for acne and eczema. It may also prove helpful in cases of psoriasis, especially when used in conjunction with other herbs, such as chickweed.

Red clover can help with symptoms and causes of the menopause. The isoflavones found in both clover and alfalfa, are widely believed to be responsible for helping to reduce hot flushes.

Other flavonoid-rich plants, with their noted strengthening and toning action on the blood vessels, can also help. Research has shown that a mere 40-80mg of red clover isoflavones per day, reduced the occurrence of unpleasant effects of menopause.

Many centuries of use have acknowledged the expectorant and anti-spasmodic actions, and ensure clover continues to have a role in treating coughs, bronchitis and whooping coughs. Respiratory herbs are discussed in my ‘reclaiming health autonomy’ article.

There are no adverse reactions recorded for red clover use, although practitioner advice is needed if already on anti-coagulant medication.

The most simple way of using red clover is eating it, but when thinking of it as a medicine, we’re thinking infusions, from the flowers. They can also be made into a tincture in alcohol or glycerine for preserving.

As a food, both the leaves and flowers are good in salads. The small flowers make an excellent garnish. Native American Indians are known to have eaten the leaves. Cordials and syrups can be made from the flowers.

In a wider Agro-ecological perspective, this plant is great for wildlife and soil. Bees love it! The red clover offers us a number of yields above and beyond food and medicine.

Sown as an annual in spring or early autumn, this is a non-creeping, nitrogen-fixing ground cover suitable for a range of polyculture in gardens, allotments, permaculture and Agro-forestry systems.

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