Red clover can grow in most places, except in very cold climates. Those in the United States can plant it in Zone 4 and warmer. This plant is native in Europe, Africa and Western Asia, but now can be found elsewhere including Argentina and Chile. It grows best in places where the summers are not too hot or the winters are not too cold.
This perennial plant (lives more than two years) is well adapted with high forage yields and a long growing season. Despite the fact that it has long roots, this plant cannot tolerate prolonged droughts. Some varieties have adapted to deal with harsher climates in places such as Canada.
Red clover prefers heavier soils, with well drained and open subsoil. Stagnant water will drain the air necessary for the respiration of the roots. This is especially important in areas susceptible to freezes. which would expand the soil to lift the plant up while the roots are anchored in the subsoil unable to raise, causing them to stretch or break. The ideal soil for growing red clover is loamy clay with lime and organic matter.
It is possible to grow red clover in a gardening container since it grows tall not broad, opposite of white clover. Those who grow it at home do it for the medicinal properties of red clover. This herb is edible, in the form of a flower as a baking and cooking additive. It can also be drunk in tea or in lemonade giving it a bright color.
Red clover can be planted alone or with a companion crop, such as grass or spring oat. When combining it with oats make sure to harvest the oats early for silage for them not to compete with the red clover, or at least remove the straw. It is best to combine red clover, putting between 10-12 pounds of seeds per acre. Since it is very commonly used for agricultural purposes, you will find that companies mostly sell seeds in bulk. This herb does not require tilling and should not be planted deeper than 1/4 inch.
For agricultural reasons, it is similar in quality than alfalfa, but the quality does not decline as rapidly with maturity. It is used as animal feed, with a first harvest 60-70 days after seeding and then each month following up to three or four times per year. Horses, goats, deer, turkey and rabbits are among the species that consume it.
It is mostly grown as a fodder crop because it fixates nitrogen, increasing the fertility of the soil. This perennial can capture up to 150 pounds per acre of nitrogen reducing the need for purchase and improving the organic material of the soil. Make sure to check the pH of the soil before planting, since soils with pH below 6.0 need an application of lime to remove the acidity. Otherwise the nitrogen fixing properties of red clover may not be very effective.
Red clover depends on insects to form its seeds, as they transport pollen from one flower to the other. On its own, this herb is completely self-sterile as the pollen is unable to fertilize the pistils of the plant on which it is produced. Bumble bees are the ones responsible for depositing the pollen from other plants when they protrude the flowers with their proboscis, thus fertilizing the red clover. Only bumblebees and some species of butterflies have a proboscis long enough to reach the nectar at the bottom of the flower tube. However, ordinary honey bees can get pollen and assist in fertilization.
Unlike other species, red clover needs to be visited more than once for the flower to be fertilized. This is due to the fact that the pistil and stamens are only exposed for a short period and then they return to their original position.
Red clover’s flowers do not fall off the head, instead they stay put while turning brown and withered. Make sure to mow these plants at the end of summer or early fall so it will keep returning each year.
How to Identify Red Clover
White clover is more common than red which is a larger plant. They usually bloom late summer and early fall. Plants are between half a foot to two feet tall. Stems are hairy and can sprawl when left untouched. Leaves are oval in shape, growing between 3/4 niches across to 2 inches long. The middle of the leaf is a lighter shade of green or white. Red clover flowers are more purple but can vary in shades between red to pink. They are about 1 inch across and they contain a seedpod with 1 or 2 seeds.
People can confuse crown vetch with red clover because of their color. This plant helps fight soil erosion, but has no medicinal value and is not edible so make sure you don’t confuse them. Purple thistle is actually more similar, but if you have a closer look you can tell the difference because it has a green bulb between the stem and the purple flower. Some species of thistle are edible.
How to Harvest and Dry red clover
Pick red clover blossoms one or two weeks after the first bloom. You just have to take the blossom off, leaving the rest of the plant untouched. It is possible to harvest this herb up to three times per year. Harvest early in the morning so the plant still has a little dew to maintain its color. If you pick them when they are dry, they will turn brown.
Simply place all the harvested blossoms in a basket or drying rack. Separate them so they are not touching each other and turn them when drying. This must be done in a dry, warm, and dark place with good ventilation. The drying process takes between one to two weeks. You can also placed them in a dehydrator for herbs for about four hours or leave them drying in a screen in the sun which takes a few hours.
If you are wild harvesting make sure the area does not have yard chemicals or pollution. Search for plants that are away from roads and never take all the plants in an area. For medicinal use it is best to used organic red clover flowers.