Yesterday, I couldn’t say enough good things about sweet clover. The magic honey plant is just starting to bloom here in southern Alberta. In a few weeks, it will yield so much nectar that bees will plug supers with fine white honey. The sides of trucks will become sticky if driven through dense waysides flushed in blooming sweet clover. It has been like that for over 50 years here in western Canada.
In yesterday’s enthusiastic blog post, I wrote that sweet clover nectar is among the richest in fructose and glucose of all nectar and among the most generous plants that nourish bees. I even included a short story about how sweet clover saved the state of Kentucky when hills were eroding and farmers were going broke. Today, I’m writing about the war against sweet clover. The Canadian government enlists volunteers and pays summer students (mostly budding ecologists) to destroy sweet clover. It’s been labeled a noxious, invasive weed.
Sweet clover is not native to Canada (or the USA, either). It’s an invasive plant, an interloper, a foreign arrival. Way back in 1880, before people realized that sweet clover rebuilds exhausted soil, prevents erosion, and feeds bees, bison, and birds, the American government started an eradication program to destroy sweet clover. It was believed to be an unwanted pest, brought from the old country in 1738 by careless immigrants. In the mid-19th century, there were laws in every state making it illegal to possess or traffic in sweet clover. Farmers were obliged to remove it when discovered – or they’d face a fine. The fear was that sweet clover would crowd out alfalfa and dry up grasslands. That was almost 150 years ago. Then a funny thing happened.
Farmers discovered that sweet clover is a hardy, drought-resistant forage for cattle and a fine crop to rebuild soil and reduce wind erosion. As we saw yesterday, it saved the state of Kentucky from bankruptcy. That was the turning point. Agriculture research stations began promoting sweet clover for land reclamation. By 1920, it was planted in about five million acres in the USA. The state of Illinois had a million acres of sweet clover that year. John Lovell wrote that sweet clover in 1926 was America’s biggest source of nectar and he predicted that states like the Dakotas and Montana – which were then marginal for beekeeping – would become major honey producers because sweet clover was moving in. He was right. Sweet clover fed bees; bees gave us mild, water-white sweet clover honey. By 1950, America’s farms grew 20 million acres of sweet clover. Pastures, roadsides, and meadows held millions more.
There are no longer millions of acres of sweet clover grown as ‘green manure’ to rebuild soil. Industrial fertilizer does that instead. Nor is sweet clover grown as hay – alfalfa is the rancher’s choice. The hay day (yea, that’s a pun) of sweet clover ended in the 1950s. I was amazed to read (according to the US Department of Agriculture) only 30,000 pounds of sweet clover seed were harvested in the USA in 2001. That seed, if sold to farmers, would only fill 5,000 acres. It’s startling how agriculture can change so much. Sixty years ago, the US had 20 million acres. Fifteen years ago, 5,000.
Cultivated sweet clover has almost vanished from farms. And now an effort is afoot to eradicate wild sweet clover. Way back in the late 19th century, the failed attempt to rid the country of wild sweet clover grew from the false idea that it would spread into farms and hurt them. Today, the effort to eradicate sweet clover is much narrower in focus and it’s not being done to protect farmers. It’s being done to restore the old ways at a new national park.
Near my former bee farm in Val Marie, Saskatchewan, the Canadian government is trying to remove sweet clover from Grasslands National Park. The grasslands is a natural home to sweet clover, which has been feeding deer and antelope in the area for a century. But, it’s exotic, invasive, intrusive, foreign, and its ancestors came from another continent. Sort of like all the people who are trying to kill the flower. Sweet clover is non-native – just like the horses, wheat, sheep, cattle, and other signs of agriculture that surround and enter the grasslands park. And honey bees, too. Honey bees, as you may know, are also exotic, invasive, intrusive, foreign species – brought by European immigrants and as alien to North America as sweet clover.
Parks Canada would like to get rid of the yellow sweet clover that thrives in the park. They say – correctly – that it’s not part of the original landscape. The idea is to revert the grasslands to what it looked like before people messed it up. It’s a gorgeous place with buttes, coulees, rattlesnakes, prairie dogs, coyotes, bison, burrowing owls, cacti, and sage brush. You really should see it – try to get there within the next hundred years, before all the yellow sweet clover has been killed by the government, and you can see the illicit yellow honey flowers, too.
To eradicate sweet clover from the Grasslands National Park, summer students and volunteers hike the hills, digging up plants. This has been going on for several years. It began under the Conservatives and now continues under the new Liberal government, so it’s not a political thing.
The challenge is to find all the first-year plants which are much more obscure than the larger second-year growth of the biennial. The plant’s roots are deep and they don’t pull out easily. You can go to this link on the Grassland’s Facebook page to see some people lugging big sacks up a coulee, plucking sweet clover. You’ll read a side caption there that explains how sweet clover impedes the Greater Short-horned Lizard as it crawls around the badlands. Darwin reminds us that smarter Greater Short-horned Lizards learn to navigate around sweet clover, resulting in clever lizard descendants. Are we really doing these special little snowflakes a favour by pampering them? But I digress. And jest – I like the little lizards.
Uprooting sweet clover by tugging on its stem is not the biggest problem facing the ecologists. Each sprig releases 100,000 tiny seeds that can drift for miles. Trying to remove yellow sweet clover – even from a relatively small national park – is the one feat that Hercules never finished.
Assuming we are stronger and more persistent than Hercules, should sweet clover be removed from Canada’s Grasslands National Park? Yes, if the park intends to represent a point in time before people began to change the natural landscape. But what of the tipi rings left by natives who lived in the badlands of the park? Hopefully those won’t be removed. How about Will James‘ famous cabin? (James was a cowboy from Quebec who ranched in the area before it became a park. He moved to California and wrote million-selling novels and screenplays for westerns.) OK, we keep James’ cabin and the tipi rings, but kill the clover. But what about the rutted car-trail that takes tourists on the scenic loop through the national park?
You see, of course, it’s not an easy fix. Someone has to make an arbitrary decision. A cut-off date. Should the park be restored to the early 20th century or the 17th? Yellow sweet clover, which I remember fondly from my youth spent hiking in the grasslands (before the area became a park), will be destroyed. But the flower is part of my personal heritage, my memories, and my experiences. You can see the proof in this picture, a photograph I took of my brother Joe in 1979, within the bounds of what later became the Grasslands National Park. Do you see all those pretty little yellow flowers, stunted because they were chewed by antelope? Sweet clover. Part of my heritage.