Photo of the Week – March 31, 2017

Prairie clover is a term that gets used pretty broadly among the public.  Ok, not necessarily the among the GENERAL public, but among people who have at least some idea what grasslands look like.  I’ve heard the term prairie clover applied to a number of different legume species, including sweet clover.  Botanically, prairie clover – as far as I know – refers only to plants in the genus Dalea, and including familiar species like purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) and white prairie clover (Dalea candida).

In Nebraska, we have eight species of prairie clover.  I finally saw large-spike prairie clover this past summer (though not in bloom), which means I’ve now seen all of them.  I’m still waiting for my certificate to arrive in the mail.  I’ve only been able to photograph five of the eight, but I’ll try to do better in the future.  Maybe I can earn the prairie clover photography patch someday.  (I’m just assuming that patch exists.  If it doesn’t, someone needs to answer for that.)

Purple prairie clover is well-known and well-distributed across Nebraska. It is a big favorite among bees, and while cattle will often eat it – especially under relatively high stocking rates – it survives periodic grazing very well in our prairies.

White prairie clover is also widespread across Nebraska and popular among pollinators. This one is hosting both a long-horned beetle and weevil.

While purple and white prairie clover are the best known of this group of wildflowers, the lesser known and more specialized prairie clovers are also worth seeing and learning about.  Golden dalea (Dalea aurea) has gorgeous yellow flowers, but you’re not likely to run across it unless you go searching for it in one of the scattered locations it occurs.  Hare’s foot dalea (Dalea leporina) is an annual prairie clover that is a real enigma to me, and I’ve only seen it in our restored prairies.  Silky prairie clover (Dalea villosa) might be my favorite of all.  It has beautiful long pale pink-lavender flowers and fuzzy sea-green leaves and is common throughout much of the Nebraska Sandhills, as well as other sandy places.

Golden dalea is a beautiful prairie clover found on prairie hillsides here and there around the state.

Hare’s-foot dalea, aka annual dalea, is not a showy prairie clover, but is still pretty. It comes and goes in our restored prairies, often responding positively during the recovery periods following bouts of fire and grazing.

Silky prairie clover has a subtle beauty that fits well in the sandy prairies it inhabits.

The remaining three species in Nebraska are large-spike prairie clover (Dalea cylindriceps), round-head prairie clover (Dalea multiflora), and nine-anther dalea (Dalea enneandra).  Round-head prairie clover just barely comes into the southern tier of Nebraska counties.  The other two are found in scattered locations around the state.

It would be hard to think of a group of wildflowers that contributes more to prairie communities than prairie clovers.  At least purple and white prairie clover provide very high quality forage for herbivores, including livestock.  Bees and other pollinators focus heavily on prairie clovers, and the pollen and nectar are abundant and easily accessible.  The seeds are big and nutritious, and eaten by birds, small mammals, and insects.  During drought years, purple and white prairie clover are among the wildflowers that are mostly still green and blooming, even when surrounded by brown crispy plants, so they keep contributing even in difficult times.  Oh, and of course, as legumes, prairie clovers are nitrogen fixers.  From a land manager’s standpoint, prairie clover is easy to harvest seed from, germinates easily in restored prairies, and survives well under our fire and grazing management here on the Platte River.

If you haven’t seen all the different prairie clovers in your area, I hope you get a chance to remedy that soon.  Personally, I can’t wait until summer wildflower season arrives so I can keep working toward earning that prairie clover photography patch.  Maybe I can talk my wife into knitting me a prairie clover-themed stocking cap to sew the patch onto!

(For you young people out there, a patch is a kind of decorative embroidered thingie folks used to sew onto their clothing to recognize an award or achievement, or to signify membership in a particular club or group.  Trust me, it was super cool.  Your friends would be impressed if you showed up to a party wearing one.)

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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12 Responses to Photo of the Week – March 31, 2017

  1. Andy says:

    Great post! I’m glad to learn more about the other Dalea species. It’s good to know that Dalea purpurea can handle heavy grazing…I planted a few about three years ago and the rabbits just have their way with them every year – so much so that i’m not even sure if they ever really established. If they did make it through, hopefully this summer i’ll actually get around to caging them, and maybe see some flowers! Thanks again!

  2. Karen says:

    Thanks for another great post, Chris. I completely understand the allure of patches. I’ve been working on a “hiker jacket” for a couple of years to document my progress along the Appalachian Trail – and also to get it out of my system. http://www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?id=527344

  3. Jim Pyrzynski says:

    Jim Locklear at the Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha is working on a project regarding Dalea cylindreps
    http://www.lauritzengardens.org/Conservation/Great_Plains/index.asp

  4. Purple and White Prairie clover are at Fermilab, and both attract some very interesting bees. Leadplant is probably a close second. I’m starting to see villages plant it along bike paths etc, which is a great sign someone knows what they’re doing – and planting. I’m going to try to get some established in my neighborhood. I’d enjoy seeing the other varieties!
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  5. James McGee says:

    We have a very rare Dalea in Illinois that I have never seen which is restricted in the state to thin soil prairies over limestone about an hour south of where I live. It was thought extinct in the area until it was rediscovered in 1974. It is called Dalea (or Petalostemum) foliosum. I am sure you will get the Dalea patch for your state before I ever earn mine. Specific information on the location of rare plants are guarded better than government secrets.

  6. James C. Trager says:

    Nice photos of a really charismatic group of plants. As for drought tolerance, there are a fair number of species in the western hot deserts, so ours are in good company in that regard.

    Now about that certificate – I await images of all eight species… :)

  7. Rick Champeau says:

    Rabbits ugh! I’ve germinated the seed then planted purple prairie clover seedlings for 3 years in my urban Milwaukee back garden and never saw a flower! In spring they eat the young plants to the ground! This winter I caged them.
    I wonder if I’ll need to keep the armor up through the summer to enjoy their blooms? Rick

    • Karen H says:

      Yes you will need to cage them continuously. My rabbits have even torn down the cages to get at them. I use heavy duty hail screen and bury it about 6″ in to the ground. Any thing that peeks out of the cage is eaten immediately.

  8. Patrick says:

    Unfortunately, like the rabbits, the voles seem to like the prairie clovers so I haven’t been able to sustain them in my back yard prairie garden despite fencing out the rabbits, but for some reason, the voles avoid lead plant.

  9. shoreacres says:

    These clovers weren’t familiar to me, so I really appreciated the great introduction. And now I know that we have Dalea here in Texas, so I’ll make my list, and start working on my patch.

  10. Pingback: Dalea villosa | Botany Photo of the Day

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