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.)
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.
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.)