What’s the difference between a weed and a flower? For most of us, weeds are plants we don’t want. Flowers are plants that we do. And as gardeners, we spend untold millions to make this happen. Yet, some of those very plants we classify as weeds can bloom more beautifully than those pricey specimens we spend so much time and money to grow.
In my opinion, red clover (Trifolium pratense) is one of these plants. It’s believed this herbaceous legume originated near the Mediterranean Sea in what is modern-day southeast Europe. Cultivated since the 3rd century, red clover was brought to America in the 1600’s by colonists. But the colonists weren’t growing red clover for its beauty.
Red clover was grown back then, as it is today, for animal fodder and hay. As a horse owner, I often find red clover growing in my flowerbeds, garden and around my yard. I’m certain the seeds get transported onto my property in the hay I purchase. But I don’t mind.
I adore the brilliant purple color and pom-pom shape of red clover flowers. I find the watermarked, trifoliate leaves equally attractive. Plus, I know if I rip off a handful of foliage as a special treat for my horses, the red clover plant will regrow with the same brilliance as before. So even though I’ve never intentionally tried growing red clover, I don’t pull it when I weed.
You see, like most legumes, the benefits of red clover include the ability to improve soil quality. Due to a symbiotic relationship with bacteria, the red clover plant can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form which plants can absorb and use. This nitrogen feeds not only the red clover, but neighboring and future plants as well.
Bees Love It
In addition, red clover is tolerant of a multitude of climates and growing conditions. The plant is easy to cultivate and fairly disease and pest resistant. Red clover flowers are also attractive to pollinators, particularly native species of bumble bees.
So I must ask, why do we restrict this attractive and beneficial flower to the status of a field plant? Or worse yet, classify the red clover plant as a weed? Whenever I visit my local nursery, I often see pots of Shamrock plants (Oxalis regnellii) for sale. These legume imposters don’t bloom as beautifully as red clover flowers, yet they have wedged out a niche as adorable houseplants.
Is this simply the case of absence making the heart grow fonder? Would gardeners embrace and adore the red clover plant if it seemed exotic and rare like oxalis? Who knows. But for now, I simply sigh and wonder why this beautiful underdog of a plant has not gained the following it so richly deserves. And I hope that maybe in another ten or twenty years things will change and growing red clover will become the next gardening fad to hit the market.