Sunday, July 13, 2014

An Ode to Prairie Clover

Ranchers refer to this protein-rich perennial as a candy plant because cattle love to eat it, so much so that in an overgrazed field you won't see any Dalea purpurea. And yet in a sandy or well drained loam it will spread vigorously, with roots reaching seven feet down. It thrives on disturbance. It's a survivor on the prairie. 


Blooming from top to bottom, each spike won't last but a few days in high summer. Bees will come in droves of varying sizes and colors, some so small you can only hear them. A stand of purple prairie clover is subtle until the right light hits it -- usually morning or evening, sleep heavy across the landscape.


It's the perfect garden height at around two feet -- not so tall as to overwhelm, not so short as to underwhelm. In masses purple clover is like a transition from full season groundcovers to showier blooms that flaunt their dalliance with pollinators and garden visitors. It is a shadow which gives definition to other perennials.


"To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee" wrote Emily Dickinson. And with its penchant to add nitrogen to the soil, purple clover helps the plants around it -- creating a more hospitable environment. It gives and it takes in equal measure.


Dalea purpurea. DAY-lee-uh prr-PUR-ee-uh. It echoes across the prairie, an ocean in an ocean of grass anchoring the world into this place.

6 comments:

dryheatblog said...

It even does well in the desert, wit minimal irrigaton. Too bad it was value(less)-engineered out of a project by one of my worst architect clients ever, where I had used drifts of it...yes, for fescue lawn.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Oh, good grief! Drifts of it are spectacular.

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Corner Gardener Sue said...

Rabbits love to eat it as well, so I put cages around mine. They are one of my favorite blooms.

scottweberpdx said...

I was afraid mine had drowned over the winter, but it finally appeared a few weeks ago...even if it's just one stem, I'm not complaining. I'm thinking of adding more this autumn to fill in a few gaps...love it!

Anonymous said...

I was delighted when I found this a native plant sale! I wanted it in my garden for so long, I was thrilled.
I bought a few plants to see how they would do & overwinter in my suburban Chicago garden, zone 5.
The plants are only about 1 foot tall. The purple has beautiful orange flecks, it's so beautiful, it's indescribable! I had no idea the roots can reach 7 feet!
I love this article, I enjoy reading everything you write! I'm trying to find a sign up to receive your articles in my inbox. If that is available, can you please post a link to it? Thanks!