“It’s a jungle out there.” That’s what I was thinking as I prepared to cut down the vegetation between the last two rows of my vineyard. Purple Vetch was draped from one side to another. Yellow Sweet clover
grew taller than my head. My feet were tangled in everything underneath. This very wet spring has really the vegetation in overdrive. Sure, the grass was tall and green, but then I began to notice the clovers. If you are looking at the picture, you might be thinking “Whoa, those are not all clovers.” Technically you are right. They are all part of the bean family Fabaceae whose name goes back to “faba”, the name of an old bean variety (wiktionary.org). (I imagine that my father’s favorite, Fava Beans, goes back to the same word.)
Although they look different from each other, this family has a lot in common. Above ground they are all very popular with bees. At some point they are all good forage. Most but not all of the “beans” are edible. Underground they all host nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. As a green manure or mulch, they all bring nitrogen into the soil from above. In concert with grass and other forbs, they very much contribute to the “jungle” effect. Each however has its own personality.
Most noticeable this year was Purple or Hairy Vetch, AKA American Vetch (Vicia Americana). It is a perennial that thrives in both dry and wet conditions. Obviously, it really likes the wet ones since it was climbing all over everything this year. That makes it very useful in reclaiming burned or disturbed land. Especially when mixed with grasses and grains, it provides good erosion control. The seed pods are edible when they are young, but the seeds themselves are poisonous when dry (sciencedirect.com). When the pods dry enough, they burst open, throwing a pair of seeds far from the original plant. I tried to figure out where “hairy” part of the name came from and almost gave up until I noticed that as the flowers are fading, they are covered in a white fuzz. This is a useful and beautiful plant when it is in its purple haze faze, but as it dries out, it a brown tangled mess.
Although it was climbing over most things, the vetch seemed to leave the Sweet Clovers alone. Not being able to resist tasting Sweet Clover, also known as Honey Clover, I found out that it is not really that sweet. After further reading I learned that the sweet part is the smell, which tested out with a wonderful perfume. Wikipedia says it grows to be 6 feet tall. Many of those in the vineyard are well over 7 feet. With up to 350,000 flowers per plant, the nectar and pollen is very attractive to bees. Beekeepers love it. Wildland ecologists don’t. Evidently it is too prolific. It shades and out-competes native plants. Also, the amount of nitrogen that it fixes into the soil changes the ecology of prairies and forests. Actually, as a farmer, I like the nitrogen and have already drastically altered the ecology. So, my only complaint is that sweet clover is too tough to mow down with a string trimmer. Back to the scythe!
Under all the other plants is a ground cover of what I can now identify as Hop Clover or more technically Black Medick or Burr Clover. I knew it was very hardy when I found it growing at a high elevation near Chesaw. I brought home some of the small black seeds. I’m not sure that is why it is everywhere now but feel that is a good thing. Wikipedia suggests that those small black seeds are edible and can be made into flour or roasted whole. (No, I have not tried that yet.) The vetch and sweet clover dry up in midsummer. But this species keeps on coming back if there is water. It doesn’t get mowed out when the regular clovers and grasses do. I love it.
Speaking of regular clover, I have two kinds, red (trifolium pratense) and white (trifolium repens). Try googling red clover and you will be swamped with ads for food, extracts, perfumes, and tinctures of the stuff. Obviously very edible and commercial, both species were imported from Europe and are now found all over the world. Virtually every browsing animal from rabbits to elk eat it, making it ideal for building “wildlife bridges” to connect fragmented habitats (Wikipedia). Ironically though, boiling is suggested before humans eat it. For an added twist, “dried white clover flowers may also be smoked as an herbal alternative to tobacco” (more Wikipedia). Bees love it too. Truthfully, it has a hard time competing with the taller plants. It grows commercially in open fields.
When it comes to open fields, nothing outdoes alfalfa (AKA Lucerne). This is an ancient forage crop grown around the world. “Pliny and Palladius called alfalfa in Latin medica, a name that referred to the Medes, a people who lived in ancient Iran.” It is a perennial crop that is sure to bring great prices per ton after this very wet spring. There are a few patches here and there on our farm, probably from hay used as mulch over the years. Although generally a good crop, too much alfalfa can be bad for horses and cause bloat in cows (horseracingsense.com). In humans, it’s often eaten as a garnish, and seems to prevent cholesterol absorption in the stomach (webmd.com). Weirdly, alfalfa exhibits autotoxicity, which means that it is difficult for alfalfa seed to grow in existing stands of alfalfa. But we seem to be getting pretty far afield here (pun intended).
The final species in this octet of Fabaceae is Sweet Peas, Lathyrus odoratus. A native of Sicily (You have to love that!), the seeds of Sweet Pea can be toxic if eaten in quantity. I did eat a young pod. It didn’t taste either good or bad and I didn’t get sick. Despite the “odoratus” part, it doesn’t smell particularly strong either. I gathered seed from the roadside years ago and now it seems to spring up wherever it wants. Maybe I was following in the footsteps of Gregor Mendel, the “Father of Modern Genetics”, who used it to pioneer crossbreeding. But more likely I was imitating generations of other isn’t-that-pretty wild seed gatherers who inadvertently spread invasive species around the world. It really is a jungle out there.
Second read is still good & with clearer pics!Permalink