Clover, Vermont state flower

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(Host) Commentator Vern Grubinger reflects on the history and importance of Vermont’s state flower.

(Grubinger) Livestock farmers depend on two families of plants: grasses, like small grains and corn; and legumes, like alfalfa and clover.

Alfalfa was widely raised in the Roman empire, and other legumes, such as beans and peas, have been grown for thousands of years in various parts of the world. But through most of history, farm animals have been raised primarily on grass.

Then, around 1500 A.D., red clover began to be cultivated in Italy and Spain as a forage crop. From there it went to Holland, and then to England. Colonists brought red clover to North America and now it’s grown on 8 to 10 million acres nationwide. In 1894, red clover became the state flower of Vermont, in tribute to its importance for pastures, hay, and honey production.

Red clover, like many clovers, can’t bear seeds unless it is fertilized by insects carrying pollen from one blossom to another. There are many improved varieties of red clover, including a tall variety called “Mammoth” clover, used as a soil improver.

White clover, or Dutch clover, is common in North American pastures and lawns. It’s a low spreading plant just a few inches high. Its pure white blossoms are also rich in nectar and a major source of honey. Alsike clover, named for a place in Sweden, is a perennial that grows one to two feet tall. It’s hardier than red clover and grows in wetter soils. Its blossoms turn from white to rose color.

A healthy diet for all livestock – whether horses, cattle, sheep, swine or poultry – includes a blend of protein and carbohydrate. Legumes like clover are an important part of livestock feed because they contain a lot of protein.

Nitrogen is a key ingredient of protein, and legumes like clover have two ways of getting their nitrogen. Like other plants, they can take it up from the soil. Unlike other plants, they can also get nitrogen from the air. They do this with the help of bacteria. They need help because even though the air contains 78% nitrogen gas, it’s chemically unavailable to plants. Certain bacteria are able to get at that nitrogen, and turn it into a form that plants can use. But the bacteria can’t photosynthesize, so they need a source of energy.

Well, leave it to evolution to work out a deal. The arrangement is called symbiotic nitrogen fixation, where the bacteria form nodules on the roots of legumes, providing them with available nitrogen in exchange for a steady diet of carbon compounds.

Usually, if you pull up the some clover or alfalfa, you’ll see these little nodules sprinkled all along the roots. Crack one open with your fingernail. The pink color comes from a kind of hemoglobin, similar to the hemoglobin that makes your blood red. I’ll bet you didn’t know you had something in common with a legume!

With an ear to the ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

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