It’s a flower. It’s a legume. It’s several kinds of medicine. It’s flour to bake with, an infusion to sip, something to kick up the nitrogen in your soil, it’s … (drumroll, please) … Red Clover!
Red Clover: Nitrogen Fixer
Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) is a perennial plant that is in peak bloom right now through early July. It’s leaflets come in groupings of 3 (no 4-leafed clovers here), and often sport a whitish, chevron-shaped mark. The flowers look like pink or pinkish-purple pompoms made up of many tiny individual florets. The whole flower heads are 1/2 to 1 1/4 inches in diameter. The plants usually get to be about 16 inches tall.
Trifolium pratense is in the Fabaceae, also known as the legume family. It is often planted by farmers as a cover crop because it has the super power of being able to fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil and make that biologically available to nourish other plants.
Medicinal Properties of Red Clover
That’s not the only super power red clover has. Medicinally, it is used for respiratory complaints, and for chronic skin ailments such as eczema. Isoflavone compounds in red clover act as phytoestrogens and are used to relieve menopausal symptoms. There are a few studies out there (and hopefully more will be done) that indicate red clover may be useful in preventing and treating breast cancer.
And on top of all of that awesomeness, red clover flowers taste good.
It’s the flowers, along with the top leaves attached to the stems near the base of the flowers, that you want to harvest. Okay, okay: food snobs will skip the leaves completely and just go for the flowers. Try harvesting that way in quantity; I dare you. You'll probably end up doing what I do and simply ignoring the occasional leaf that end up in your collection container along with the flowers.
One of the best ways to use red clover both medicinally and as a pleasant beverage is to make an infusion of it. Red clover tastes mildly sweet to me, and combines well with nettles, red raspberry leaf, and/or mint. To prepare, pour boiling hot water over the herbs, cover, and let steep for 30 minutes. Strain and serve hot or chilled. If you like your tea sweet, honey pairs better with red clover than sugar or agave does.
You can strip the tender florets off of the tough flower head base and use them, fresh or dried, in grain recipes such as rice salads. Fresh red clover florets with barley and a little mint is an especially tasty combination.
Dried, the florets can be used to replace up to 25% of the wheat or other grain flour in recipes for baked goods. The red clover flowers add a lightly spongy texture, mild sweetness, and a dash of protein to whatever bread, muffin, etc. you are baking.
And here's one last fact about this fantastic plant: red clover is the state flower of Vermont.
Red Clover Buttermilk Soda Bread Recipe
Yield one round loaf.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a baking sheet, or line with parchment paper or a silpat mat.
1 1/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour (pastry flour makes this bread more tender. If you can’t get whole wheat pastry flour, use a mix of half all-purpose and half whole wheat flours)
1/2 cup red clover blossom florets (stripped off of the tough bases/cores)
1 tsp. baking powder½ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp salt
2 tsp caraway or anise seeds (optional)
2/3 cup buttermilk
¼ cup melted butter, plus one more tablespoon reserved for brushing on finished loaf
1 tbsp. honey
Whisk the dry ingredients (including the fresh or dried red clover blossom florets) together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients.
Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry ones. Stir to incorporate the flour. Don’t stir too much though—it’s okay if there is still a little dry flour here and there, and for this dough lumpy is good. You want the dough to still be somewhat soft and sticky, but coherent enough that you can shape it into a loaf. If the dough seems too goopy, add more flour a little at a time. I sometimes need to add as much as 1/3 c. additional flour. Some cracks on top are okay and actually make the finished loaf more attractive in a rustic way. Scrape the dough out onto your baking sheet. Shape it into a disk approximately five to six inches in diameter. Bake 25-35 minutes until golden. While still hot, brush with remaining tablespoon of butter. Let cool on a rack.
Leda Meredith teaches foraging and food preservation skills internationally. You can watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and find her food preservation recipes and tips. Her latest book is Northeast Foraging: 120 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Beach Plums to Wineberries.