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.


Anonymous 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.

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 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!