Crimson clover is also called Italian clover, and it’s a clover type that is native to virtually every part of Europe. It’s actually an annual legume that you plant in the late summer or very early fall months for the best results, and it makes a pretty addition to your garden as it produces flowers that are a bright red, vibrant color. It’s also a cold-hardy plant that can withstand temperatures down to 0°F as long as it’s an established plant.
Most of the time, you’d use crimson clover as a cover crop to help enrich the soil, or it’s popular as a roughage filler in cattle feed. As a cover crop, this plant produces a large amount of nitrogen. After you harvest it, it leaves these nitrogen pockets in the ground to increase how fertile your soil is.
If you choose to start your crimson clover plant in the early fall months, it’ll give you pretty flowers during the spring months. Because it’s such a versatile plant, you can use it as a cover crop, ornamental, pollinator attractor, or as roughage for cattle. It’s very commonly used as an ornamental plant alongside highways, but it can be extremely invasive if you don’t take time to manage it correctly.
Very few nitrogen-fixing plants are as pretty as crimson clover is. With the conical, crimson red blooms that sit above fleecy, tall stems, it’s easy to assume that people plant it purely for the aesthetics. However, this is a tough workhorse in the agricultural industry, and we’ll break down why and how to grow it below.
Crimson clover is a pretty spreading plant that sits lower to the ground and makes excellent feed for cattle or sheep.
Crimson Clover – General Information
Crimson clover is also known as Trifolium incarnatum or Italian clover. It’s a clover species that comes from the Fabaceae family alongside beans and peas, and it’s native to most parts of Europe. It was also introduced to other parts of the world, including Japan and the United States. The species name translates to “blood red” so this is fitting for the bright red blooms.
This is an annual herb that will get between 8 and 20 inches high at full maturity, and it tends to not branch away from the main stem too much as it grows. The leaves feature a long petiole with a tri foliated design, the every hairy leaflet is between 8 and 16 mm wide. The stem is bilobed or truncated.
The crimson clover plant produces the flowers during spring and summer, and they can be crimson or deep red in color. They form a dense elongated, pointed inflorescence that is between three and five centimeters high and roughly 1.5 centimeters long. The individual flowers measure between 10 and 13 mm long at full maturity, and they form five petals per flower. Each flower’s banner is not vertical, but it tends to grow folding forward.
It’s common to use the crimson clover plant in an agricultural setting as a cover to fix the nitrogen in the soil, as you would green beans. This plant uses connections to the rhizobial bacteria to help fix the soil’s nitrogen content. It’s very popular to grow as a protein-rich fodder for cattle to eat as a hay substitute. It’s also used very commonly to help control road erosion while making the space more visually appealing. However, it tends to take over and smother out other native spring and early summer vegetation in any area where you plant it if you’re careful.
How to Plant Crimson Clover
You can plant your crimson clover in late autumn in planting zones that won’t get below 0°F during the winter so it settles before the frost hits. Try to plant it a minimum of eight weeks before the first frost date in your area. In areas that get much colder in the winter and it drops below 0°F for extended periods, wait to plant your crimson clover until the spring.
You should plant the seeds a ¼ to ½ of an inch deep in rows, and each seed should be roughly seven centimeters apart, and you want to leave a minimum of seven centimeters between each row. Crimson clover is generally a nice companion plant for annual flowers like poppies or bachelor buttons, broccoli, or cornflower.
It requires very little maintenance from you once the plant establishes itself. It’s not a drought-resistant plant, and it has to get routine and uniform watering throughout the active growing season in spring and summer. Enough water is also necessary if you want to sow the plant again in the spring months.
This plant doesn’t do well in excessively wet or very heavy soils. Although it does need sun to grow, it won’t grow nearly as well if it’s extremely hot as it likes a humid, cool atmosphere. They like the pH levels to range from 6 to 7 at most at all times, and it’ll struggle if you plant it in very alkaline or very acidic soil conditions. If you’re using this plant to help enrich your current soil, you want to incorporate compost or manure into the soil when you plant it. It also requires a decent amount of phosphorus and potassium in the soil to grow strong and establish itself.
Planting from Seed
Although this plant can tolerate virtually any soil type to an extent, it likes slightly looser and very rich soil that has good drainage. You want to stay far away from poorly drained soils because this will invite issues with diseases.
When you’re planting them in a field from seed, you want to inoculate them with the Rhizobium inoculants if the field hasn’t had any true nodulated clover grown for at least the last three years. The germination process and seedling survive depends on cool but not freezing temperatures at night that fall below 60°F with sufficient moisture in the soil. As with other clover crops, crimson clover seeds will germinate better and require less care when they’re growing than spreading clover crops.
You want to plant each seed roughly ⅓ to ½ of an inch deep. If you spread the crimson clover seeds, you should put it on a light disc to incorporate it into the soil. Planting it with a herb can help prevent more winter deaths, and you can mix it in with 1.5 to 2 pounds per acre of cereal like barley, oats, or wheat or 18 to 25 pounds an acre of annual ryegrass seed.
It is available in hard and soft seed cultivars. Any variety that has hard seeds will wait until fall to germinate if the seed gets established late in the spring months. Any crimson clover variety that has a high proportion of hard seeds are excellent choices for self-sowing, and this is popular in orchards.
Even though crimson clover is an annual plant, it’s common to replant it and it can stay for several years this way. It also forgives poor soil conditions better, but it still likes a rich and well-drained soil medium. It can also handle a pH level down to 5.7 without any damage, and soil testing is the best way to decide if you need to adjust the pH by adding lime. As it’s a legume, you need to inoculate it with the correct Rhizobium bacterium strain before you plant it. In many commercial mixes, this seed comes pre-inoculated.
Seedbed preparation is also a critical step when you’re planting small seed crops like crimson clover because you don’t want to bury the seed more than ½ of an inch deep. Prepare or dial the soil and then smooth the seedbed by packing in the crop to get the best planting conditions possible. The seeds can perforate at a rate of 10 to 15 pounds per acre. Spread the seed at a rate of 20 pounds per acre to get a pure crimson cover plant. It’s best to back before and after you plant to ensure the seeds have excellent soil contact.
No matter how you choose to plant crimson clover, you have to be very careful to watch it so it doesn’t take over your space and smother out native plants.
The Best Time of Year to Plant Crimson Clover
Crimson clover usually sows later in the summer so that the plants have time to settle before the cold weather comes around. In colder climates, this plant is better planted early in the spring instead of in the fall months. Spread the seed on your cultivated soil so that the seeds are a centimeter deep and five centimeters apart.
As a cover crop, crimson clover gets planted throughout the southeastern portion of the United States in the fall to work as a nitrogen-fixing winter crop. The best growing temperatures range from 40°F and 70°F. They actually prefer slightly colder climates, and they’ll die in extreme heat or cold conditions. In northern climates where it gets much colder during the winter, you can grow this plant as a summer annual cover crop that you sow in the spring as soon as the frost recedes. Due to how attractive this plant is for pollinators and the ability to fix the nitrogen content in the soil, this is an excellent plant to have around nuts, fruit trees, blueberries, and corn plants.
When you grow it on a pasture as cattle fodder, you will sow it between the pastures in the late summer months or early fall to give your livestock food during the winter. As a green manure crop, crimson clover produces roughly 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre. While it can only be grown in pure stands, it usually gets mixed with ryegrass, oats, or other clovers to help diversify the plantings. In a residential garden setting, crimson clover can work to correct your soil if it’s low in nitrogen, attract pollinators, and increase winter interest.
How Much Crimson Clover to Plant Per Acre
To use each winter, you should sow your crimson clover plants six to eight weeks before the average first frost date of the winter. If you’re putting it in a container, you’ll sow 15 to 18 pounds per acre. If you’re spreading it, up this to 22 to 30 pounds per acre. To use each year during the summer months, you want to plant it as soon as the frost danger passes in the springtime. The sowing rates are very similar to winter ones. You can sow it in excess in crops like corn and use it after short rotation crops like green beans. You want to plant it roughly ¼ inch deep for the best results.
How you manage your hay and pasture varieties will vary with the food mix or fodder. The size of your crimson clover is yellow, rounded, and roughly three times bigger than most other clubs. Crimson clover will grow well in small mixtures of grains like oats. You can also safely mix it with other clovers. For a mixed planting situation, you want to include crimson clover at ⅔ of the normal planting rate. To be able to sow your crimson clover again, you need enough moisture by April.
You can mix it with wheat, rye, and oats if you keep these small grain proportions to roughly 50 pounds per acre. Ryegrass goes in at 15 pounds per acre, and it’s a good companion for a mix that you will replant next September. However, the strong showing and aggressive nature of the Ryegrass plant will slowly take over the crimson clover. Adding Arrow Leaf Clover at 10 pounds per acre will add longevity and variety to a southern mix where the winter temperatures don’t dip below 10°F.
Bees and Crimson Clover
Crimson clover is a plant that bees adore as it produces a beautiful and long flower that is packed full of nectar. It’s one of the most reliable clover honey crops available, and unlike other choices, it blooms far earlier in the season. In pastures, it’ll start to bloom in April and go until the end of the month. Flowering will only last roughly three weeks, so you have to build colonies earlier to take advantage of the nectar. This is possible with good management.
However, it’s important to note that most farms won’t grow crimson clover on large scales, so it’s not a known source of high-quality honey. It actually ranks third in the honey production sector. The honey will have a very light yellow color to it. Roughy one acre of Alsike Clover will yield 500 pounds of honey.
Clover usually grows best in swamps or loose soils. When you grow it from seed, it doesn’t take long to bloom, but it won’t produce tons of hay like crimson clover would. The clover gives you white-colored honey with a very mild flavor, and people consider this to be the best available. A single colony of bees can make up to 18 pounds a day and 72 pounds in four days. This also takes into account what the bees eat.
Not only is this plant available very early in the season for pollinators, but it comes packed with nectar for bees to enjoy.
Crimson Clover Longevity
The crimson clover has dark green leaflets in an oval shape that don’t have the V-shaped watermark, and this makes it easier to tell apart from other clover cultivars. It has hairy leaves and stems with bright crimson flowers that produce yellow, round seeds that are roughly 2.5 times bigger than arrow leaf seeds. When you plant them in the fall, this plant will grow as an annual and bloom from early to mid-April and May in the northeast. When you plant it in the spring, it becomes an annual plant that will bloom during the same year in roughly 70 to 90 days.
When you plant crimson clover in the fall, it can form 50 to 80 pounds of nitrogen per acre by the middle of April. The nitrogen is found in the growth above the ground for the most part, and 50% of that amount will be available for your next harvest in the first year, or around 25 to 40 pounds of nitrogen per acre. If your crimson clover grows by June, between 140 and 260 pounds of nitrogen per acre can be accumulated, and out of that, 70 to 130 pounds will be available to harvest per acre. The spring growth conditions will impact the crimson clover growth and influence the amount of nitrogen production you end up with.
Companion Planting with Crimson Clover
Crimson clover makes a very nice companion plant with a few different vegetables or plants. They include but are not limited to:
- Corn – You’ll get above average shade tolerance for your crimson clover seedlings when you plant them in the V4 to V8 corn leaf stage. Until the maize matures and the canopy opens, you’ll see very little crimson clover growth and no significant competition with the growing corn plant. However, once you harvest the corn, your clover growth can explode. In a humid and hot year, the pretty bright red flowers can easily develop before it freezes.
- Grass-Like Oats – Planting crimson clover with grass-like oats work because they both grow quickly and provide more weed control around the plants.
- Short Season Crops – It’s common to effectively use this clover plant to suppress weeds when you plant them in the early fall months as long as you plant them after a short-season crop like green beans, potatoes, winter wheat, or other vegetables.
In California, many people plant pink clover and crimson clover in orchards or in nut plantations to help minimize erosion and provide a boost of nitrogen for the tree plantations. It generally works very well as a companion plant for species like broccoli or cornflower, or for annual flowers like poppies and bachelor’s buttons.
In colder northern climates, crimson clover works well as an annual plant during the summer as a cover crop that you sow in the spring as soon as the frost danger passes. Due to how well it attracts pollinators and how it fixes the nitrogen levels in the soil, it’s a great plant to have around nuts, fruit trees, and blueberries.
Animals Crimson Clover Attracts
There are several small and large mammals that eat crimson clover. In fact, white-tailed deer adore this plant so much that it’s common for commercial deer feeds to have almost a 100% clover content. Small mammals also like crimson clover, including red foxes, ponytail rabbits, marmots, and more.
Crimson clover is important fodder for cattle as it provides decent-quality hay, pasture, and silage for livestock. It’s also considered to be one of the oldest first legumes that are ready in the spring, and it has virtually no effect on ruminants. It also has several non-forage uses attached to it, including improving the landscape, honey source, wildlife habitat, cover crops, and as green manure to help get rid of weeds. Crimson clover also has a high water content and is packed with moisture-soluble carbohydrates that make it excellent for silage. When the dry matter hits 30% to 40%, you should finely chop it and store it in a tightly closed silo.
Mixtures of Ryegrass or other grass and crimson clover work well for bale silage because this prevents leaf loss. In this case, the dry matter should be between 40% and 50%, so slightly higher than regular silage. To get the best silage quality possible for your livestock, you should not cut the crimson clover too far to help avoid soil contamination and the development of butyric acid bacteria.
Any cattle or sheep that graze on crimson clover usually don’t need to be fed an additional feed because the clover comes packed with a mix of fibers, proteins, vitamins A and D, and calcium.
Generally speaking, it’s a very versatile plant that you can cultivate in the summertime in cold climates and in the winter in warmer ones. It does well in moist soils, including ones that are slightly acidic as long as they drain well, but it won’t tolerate alkaline soils. It’s also not hugely drought-tolerant, and it has a mild tolerance for shade. It grows quickly after the winter months and improves the chances for early grazing during the springtime. It finishes producing foliage early in April, and this makes it a good companion plant for Texas Bermuda Grass.
Horses tend to love the taste of the crimson clover flower and eat it well. Some horse owners did note that this plant can cause excessive salivation. However, there is a smaller clover that is poisonous to horses, no matter if it’s in grass or hay form. It can trigger a horrible skin reaction to sunlight, or the horse can die within 24 hours of exposure.
There are several smaller animals that are heavily attracted to crimson clover, and it makes a cost-effective food source for domesticated animals like sheep and cattle.
Eating Crimson Clover
Although crimson clover has a reputation for being 100% edible, from root to flower, it’s not an option for “wild eating.” Some people claim that it’s good survival food, and this may be true as only the flowers are palatable to humans. The leaves are a very acquired or tolerated taste. You can germinate the seeds and use them in sandwiches or salads, or you can dry and grind them to make flour. The flowers work in tea fresh or dried, and some people claim that you can eat it raw, sauteed, or boiled.
When it comes to the flowers, avoid the brown ones. You want the blooms to be fresh and young, no matter if they’re red, pink, or white. You can also toast the flowers until they’re crunchy and soft. The leaves are another matter, and they’re only digestible to up to roughly a half of a cup and they have a very bitter or acidic taste.
The crimson clover plant has been very important to the agricultural sector for years, and it’s slowly gaining popularity as an eye-catching flower for your garden. The bright red plants attract hordes of pollinators, and this is a low-maintenance groundcover to consider adding to your yard this spring or fall.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.