We are going to be planting red clover along with buckwheat in our baby orchard this year to help improve the soil. I was prompted to research this herb due to its beneficial role as a cover crop, its nutritional strength, its pleasant taste, and the fact that it can be found growing just about anywhere in America. All of which makes me want to get better acquainted with this plant ally. And I’m so glad I did!
Red clover, honeysuckle trefoil, king’s crown, sleeping maggie, bee-bread
Aerial parts—most commonly the flowering tops are used, but the leaves are sometimes used as well.
Trifolium pratense is a tonic herb, especially for the skin, and especially for children. Its other actions are nervine, diuretic, antitumor/chemopreventive, blood purifying and blood building, expectorant, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory. Rosemary Gladstar says red clover is, “One of the best detoxification herbs and respiratory tonics,” (Gladstar, 358).
Red clover has been used historically and today as a treatment for a bevy chronic chest complaints, including colds, coughs, congestion, and bronchitis. As mentioned above, it has also been used for treatment of skin problems, especially for children but also for adults, such as eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis. Additionally, red clover has been long used for tumors/cancer, as well as cysts and fibroids in the body. In fact, it was one of the ingredients in the controversial Hoxsey formula, and anticancer formula developed by herbalist Harry Hoxsey. Other indications include prostate enlargement, AIDS, and osteoporosis. Herbalist and midwife Aviva Romm also suggests its use as part of formulas for liver strengthening and nourishment and recovery after miscarriage (Romm).
Trifolium pratense is also a noteworthy herb for women’s hormone issues, such as menopause or PMS, and is recommended for protection against some of the detrimental side effects of the use of hormone replacement therapy (see the Constituents section below for more information). Naturopath Tori Hudson adds, “red clover isoflavones may reduce the risk of coronary vascular disease by increasing arterial elasticity, although… not improve cholesterol levels. Red clover isoflavones may also slow bone loss of the spine,” (Hudson, 196).
Red clover is a nutritional and herbal medicine powerhouse, “rich in minerals, most notably calcium, nitrogen, and iron,” (Gladstar, 359), phenolic glycosides, coumarins, cyanogenic glycosides, and salicylates. Among its isoflavones are genistein, diadzen, biochanin A, and formononetin, which may act nutritionally to prevent cancer (Foster II, 76). These isoflavones are natural estrogens, similar to human female hormones. “Phytoestrogens perform functions in the body similar to those of natural and synthetic estrogens, relieving menopause- and menstruation-related problems and perhaps protecting against osteoporosis and cancer of the breast, colon, and prostate… If you’re taking prescription female hormones, which have been linked to breast cancer, the milder phytoestrogens again step in and prevent the synthetics from interacting with tissue cells,” (Duke II, 183).
Nutritionally, red clover is a good source of protein, similar to the protein found in whole grains, and also provides, “beta carotene, vitamins C, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B9, B12… It’s a good source of the minerals magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper, and selenium,” (Brill, 25).
Red clover is a perennial and grows up to three feet tall, with clusters of three round leaflets, each often marked with a whitish V-shape, and a tender, hairy stem. The flowering tops of Trifolium pratense can be pink, purple, red. It tends to grow well in temperate climates, commonly found in meadows, along edges of forests, in bordering areas such as along roads or fences, and in areas where the ground has been disturbed. Naturalized to America, it is a native to Europe, the Mediterranean, and Asia.
Red clover flowers should be gathered just when fully opened; the flowers should not be at all dried out or moldering. It can be harvested between late spring and early fall (Hoffman, 154). Per usual, although the herb grows plentifully along roadsides, one should not collect in areas where there is any significant amount of traffic due to potential pollutant contamination.
Preparations include infusion of fresh or dried flowers (which also makes a wonderful, soothing bath), tincture, or flowers eaten fresh on salads, etc. If using dried blossoms, make sure it still has its color and is not pale or brown, which indicates it was dried at too high a heat or for too long. Refer to the picture above as to what is good color retention in dried red clover.
Trifolium pratense has long been used as food for livestock as well as a cover crop—in fact it was originally brought to America from Europe as a hay crop (Brill, 24). Past folk medicine use has been primarily for chest complaints, tumors, skin problems, not to mention warding off evil spirits (Duke II, 183). This more spiritual protection makes more sense when you consider its symbolic nature: “For the ancient priesthood of Druids, clovers were symbols of Earth, sea, and heaven, and for Christians, a symbol of the trinity,” (Foster III, 304).
Generally, red clover is very safe, with no significant side effects—however, it is perhaps best not to take very large amounts while nursing or pregnant. “Pregnant animals have had miscarriages after grazing heavily on the clover,” (Duke II, 184). Also, “Hemophiliacs or people with ‘thin’ blood should not use red clover regularly, as the herb can exacerbate the condition,” (Gladstar, 359).