Did you ever see a cat during his first discovery of catnip? That's the way honey bees act when they find a field of sweet clover. It seems as if they immediately become intoxicated. I learned early on that I must never play there, no matter how golden soft it looked, and no matter how sweet it smelled.
Sweet clover is equally attractive to horses and cattle, the plant is one of their favorite fodders. I learned an interesting fact from my great Uncle Dock about sweet clover. He told me that when he was very young he decided to store sweet clover for fodder. When cattle feeding on the hay began hemorrhaging, it was discovered that the clover they had eaten had been stored before it was completely dry, and so it had fermented. I asked Uncle Dock why his cattle didn't just get drunk, and he said that the clover had something in it that when rotted would adversely affect the cows and would cause them to bleed. A long time later I found that he was right. That something turned out to be coumarin, a substance that gives the plant its vanilla taste and scent, but becomes an anticoagulant when fermented. I guess the farmers all learned that the hard way because Uncle Dock told me he lost some of his best cows.
Aunt Bett told me that sweet clover's medicinal properties have been known for thousands of years. She said the ancients made a sweet tea from the plant that was used to treat intestinal worms and earaches. I decided that I might not mind if it were used as a treatment for earache, but nobody was ever going to treat me for worms. I knew I never ate a worm, so how on earth could any worms ever get inside me? That was a question that Aunt Bett never did explain to my satisfaction, and I was afraid to pursue it any further. The ancients, she said, also used an infusion made from the plant to make a poultice to help ease inflammations and swollen joints, and some believed that it could be used to preserve eyesight. Aunt Bett never made it into an infusion, but she did make a salve from it that she used in healing wounds and sores caused by scratching bug bites. I loved to put it on my bug bites because it smelled so good. I probably put it where there were no bug bites, too, since I thought it was a fine smelling perfume. It is a wonder the bees didn't come after me.
Sweet clover, Meliotus officinalis, grows in open fields, along roadsides, and in waste areas. It was a native of Europe, but it is now naturalized across North America and is widely grown for fodder. It is a biennial herb, growing to about 5 feet, with so many branches it looks much like a shrub. Each leaf consists of three leaflets with toothed margins. Light yellow flowers grow on towering spikes from June through September, the flowers are about a fourth of an inch across. The whole plant has a sweet vanilla smell that is more intense when the plant is dried.
According to Aunt Bett's records, sweet clover has been used medicinally primarily for poultices for inflammations and for wounds. She might have said that because that is all she used it for, but she usually knew what she was talking about when it came to medicinal plants.
When we went to gather sweet clover, I remember having to wear long overalls and long sleeved shirts. My mother made me wear a hat, too and I had to tuck my hair up inside the hat. We covered our hands with gloves, and Aunt Bett told me that if the bees were swarming I would have to run for cover. Now where in the world would I have run to out in an open field? I was told to walk softly and to not do anything to disturb the bees. I nearly suffocated in all those clothes in the heat of a July morning, but I guess it might have been worth it because I never did get stung by any of those happy bees. I finally decided they were so tipsy they didn't even know we were there.
Over the years I have had my share of sweet clover tea made from the dried plant. Drying enhances the sweet vanilla taste. It is a nice gentle tea, and is sweet enough that it needs no sugar. If I want to turn it into a high energy drink, I add a few drops of honey while it is still hot. Somehow that honey just blends right in, and I wonder if my honey came from bees that drunkenly fed from a field of sweet clover.
All photos are from Plant Files. A special thanks to these photographers: Creekwalker, frostweed, and Melody.
(Editor's Note: This article originally ran February 15, 2011.Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)