Red clover is a common perennial plant, found throughout Britain in rich meadows, pastures and other grassy areas. It has an erect stem and many leaves, each with three leaflets. The leaves are quite distinctive for each long-oval leaflet has a white crescent-shaped spot near the base. The small reddish-purple flowers grow in dense heads terminating the stems. The plant is rich in nectar which attracts long-tongued flies, butterflies, moths, and bumble bees. In the old days, when the men used to go to the far haaf (fishing) the sweet scent of clover would lead them back to the shore:
'Well, there is a variety of clover that grows, a very big variety and very strongly scented, and in the old days when the men used to row out, or sailed out to the fishing grounds beyond Foula and they stayed out perhaps from Monday until Friday, and they could always find their way back if darkness fell or if mist came down. When the wind or breeze is laying off the land the scent of clover is wafted across the sea, and this was how the men in the old days used to find their way back.' (Stella Shepherd, Papa Stour, Scottish Life Archive, Flora Celtica)
Red clover provides natural soil enrichment and has been widely cultivated as animal fodder. Mixed with ryegrass, it has been used in Scotland for over 200 years. The species is also rich in nitrogen. Even though nitrogen is abundant in the earth's atmosphere, most organisms are unable to tap into this rich reserve. For atmospheric nitrogen to become available, it must be first 'fixed' with hydrogen or oxygen to produce ammonium or nitrate salts. Plants lack the ability to do this by themselves, but certain species have developed symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria (rhizobium). Clover and gorse for example can both accumulate nitrogen in this way and help to fix it in the soil, making them excellent fodder plants and sources of 'green manure'. As oppose to white clover, red clover would not be used on pastures, as the black cattle are apt to eat too much of it, and to swell as a result.
(Flora Celtica, Plants and People in Scotland- W.Milliken & S.Bridgewater, 2013)
Red clover has been used in herbal medicine to treat respiratory and skin disorders, as well to cure fevers and inguinal (groin) inflammations. It contains “isoflavones” which are changed inside the body to “phytoestrogens” which are similar to the hormone estrogen. Some women use red clover for symptoms of the menopause such as hot flashes; for breast pain or tenderness and for premenstrual syndrome.
Local names include bee-bread, honeystalks and suckbottles; the latter referring to the sweet nectar or honey that can be sucked from the flowers.
'Field guide to the wild flowers of Britain' -Reader's Digest Nature Lover's Library, 1995
'Flora Celtica, Plants and People in Scotland' - W.Milliken & S.Bridgewater, 2013
'The Gaelic names of plants' - J.Cameron, first published 1900, 2019 re-print
'Scottish Plant Lore' - G. J. Kenicer, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 2020
'The illustrated book of wild flowers' - edited by P.Bristow from a text by Z.Podhajska, 1987