Birdsfoot trefoil


I’m sure I must appear the most contrary of gardeners. While most people will stroll along the borders marvelling at the fabulous specimens arranged within, I spend half my time peering at the lawn or at cracks in the paving to see what's taken root of its own accord. It’s in exactly this kind of situation where I’m likely to encounter birdsfoot trefoil, a plant which the Victorians, for reasons best known to themselves, associated with dark feelings of revenge. But, since they used to cover the legs of tables and chairs the better to guard against shocking the ladies into a faint, I think it’s safe to ignore that as bonkers.

The flowers of birdsfoot trefoil are yellow – yellow as surely it was intended to be from the very beginning. Not a jaundiced yellow, or a chlorotic yellow - colours that signal sickness and infirmity – but a joyful, life-affirming, rich shade of yellow, like the yolk of a really good egg. This, together with the reddish blush to the buds, is reflected in two of the common names of Lotus corniculatus, ‘Hen and chickens’ and ‘Bacon and eggs’.

The long, narrow seed pods, with a little imagination, will conjure up an image of a bird’s foot. A slightly more active imagination, and perhaps a drink or three, might lead you to ‘Granny’s toenails’ or even ‘Devil’s Fingers’.

Semi-ripe seed pods. 

Semi-ripe seed pods. 

The 'trefoil' reference manages to be simultaneously both descriptive and somewhat inaccurate, as while the compound leaf has three large leaflets to the front, the attentive observer will spy two smaller ones to the rear. Sneaky.

Detail showing the arrangement of the compound leaves

Detail showing the arrangement of the compound leaves

A member of the pea and bean family, this is a useful weed, valued as a forage crop for livestock and for stabilising soil on grassy banks and alopes, where its low, ground hugging habit proves to bean asset. Being a legume, it also fixes nitrogen with its roots, and so acts as a useful crop for soil improvement. Although it’s a plant of grasslands with a particularly wide distribution, I don’t often encounter it on a daily basis (its diminutive distant cousin, yellow hop clover Trifolium campestre, is far more common, just as useful a plant, though not nearly so attractive), probably due to the rich, damp qualities of the local soils in all but the hottest of summers. The specimen in the photograph was found in a roadside verge, merrily flowering away until cruelly mown down. As a plant that copes well with close cropping, I expect to see it make a full recovery in fairly short order.

Honeybees are particularly fond of the pea-like flowers, as you can see in the following video clip from youtube.

Butterflies and moths, including the common blue and the five and six spot burnet, value birdsfoot trefoil as source of larval food, and while I’m happy for them, I’ll not be munching any of it in hurry. The small amount of cyanide produced when crushing all parts of the plant might not be present in lethal quantities, but probably best avoided to avoid discomfort, although the flowers may be used in an infusion as a sedative. 

Distant cousin Trifolium campestre among the grass.

Distant cousin Trifolium campestre among the grass.

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