Reviled as a weed, this common plant is good for lawns and pollinators too.

By Steve Bender
May 15, 2020
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Remember as a kid the white blooms of clover dotting the lawn in spring like edelweiss in an alpine meadow? How you took off your shoes to run barefoot across the grass, until you accidentally stepped on a honeybee pollinating a flower, and YEEEOOOWWW!!

Yeah, well, that was one reason people turned their backs on clover. A bigger reason, though, was chemical companies bombarding TV, newspapers, and magazines with ads extolling the virtues of the perfectly manicured lawns containing nothing but grass blades. They encouraged homeowners to regularly apply broadleaf weed killers to eliminate offensive weeds like dandelions, plantain, chickweed, and clover. Slowly, but surely, white clover disappeared from the lawns of suburbia.

But is clover really so bad? Its flowers, after all, are a favorite nectar source for honeybees and other pollinators. That’s where we get clover honey. I’ll be you’d be surprised to learn that back in the day, lawn seed mixtures always contained some clover seed. Why would they do that? Well, it seems that turfgrasses and clover get along quite well. The clover takes nitrogen – the most important plant nutrient – out of the air and down to the roots where it feeds the grass. Thus, lawns containing clover need less fertilizer.

Clover does other good things too. Its vigorous root system breaks up compacted, clay soil, while making the clover highly tolerant of drought. Clover also moves into bare spots in the lawn, so that soil doesn’t wash away. The only care it needs is mowing to keep shrubs, trees, and tall weeds from shading it out.

People often confuse clover with another three-leafed, prostrate plant called wood sorrel. (Both are also called “shamrock,” but that name can apply to many different species.) Here’s how to tell them apart. White clover (Trifolium repens) has dome-shaped flowers made up of many hook-shaped petals. The flowers of wood sorrel (Oxalis sp.), on the other hand, consist of five flattened petals that may be yellow, pink, red, or white. Some wood sorrels are valued as garden plants for their colorful flowers and foliage. Others are cursed as weeds.

Maybe people are becoming less obsessive about their lawns, but as I stroll through the neighborhood, I see more and more patches of white clover adorning front lawns. And I think that’s not a bad thing – as long as I’m wearing shoes.