Late spring is an amazing time of year. Here in Ontario, June tends to be our greenest month, when the fields and forests have a lushness that almost resembles that of a tropical climate. Spring is also the time of year when I get a new group of students attending my field workshops. Most people are familiar with a few herbs and trees, and people with a personal interest in medicinal herbs usually know a few more. But to the untrained eye, the plant world mostly looks like a mosaic of different shades of green occasionally punctuated by various coloured flowers. I really enjoy helping people learn to make more sense of that field of green as they develop the ability to differentiate the species of plants that grow in this region. There’s always a particular degree of excitement when they realize that a plant we are looking at is some medicinal species that they’ve read about.
I can remember when I was a child and would go walking in the woods. The world was filled with so many different plants, but I didn’t know very many of them. I was thinking about this after my first field workshop in April, trying to remember how many plants I had some kind of a relationship with as a child. I may not have always known their names, but I actually knew a fair number of plants. I can remember getting the fruits (burrs) of burdock (Arctium spp.) and the spiky seeds of beggar-ticks (Bidens spp.) stuck in my clothes in late summer. I remember my friends and I stripping the green immature seeds from the spikes of broad-leaved plantain (Plantago major) and common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) in mid-summer and throwing them at each other, or searching through the colonies of white clover (Trifolium repens) that grew on our lawn looking for a four-leaf clover. And what child didn’t bring a bouquet of dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) to his or her mother in May, or enjoy blowing the seeds off the stalks after they ripened? As I recall, one of my favourite plants was red clover (Trifolium pratense). I used to love picking the little tubular flowers off the flower heads and eating them or sucking the nectar out of them.
Many years later, when I was in my early twenties and I became interested in medicinal herbs, I read a couple of books on them, and red clover was one of the herbs in the first formulation I used when I was trying to treat a health issue at the time. We go back a long way!
Red clover is originally a native of the temperate regions of Europe and northwestern Asia. It is commonly planted as a fodder crop and green manure because of its ability to increase the nitrogen and mineral content of the soil. As a result, it has now become naturalized over much of the world, including most of North America south of the tree line. In Ontario, it grows in all but the extreme northwestern part of the province.
Red clover has a long history of medicinal use in Europe and was adopted by a number of First Nations peoples when it became common in North America. It is still used by most Western herbalists in Europe and North America. The Trifolium genus is quite large and there are many species of clover that have been used medicinally; however, red clover has long been considered the preferred species.
In Ontario, red clover tends to begin flowering in late May or early June and continues to flower throughout July, sometimes into August. Each flower head contains many tubular flowers that range in colour between various shades of pink and lavender. Red clover primarily grows in open areas where it gets plenty of sunlight, although it can tolerate some shade. It is sometimes confused with alsike clover (Trifolium hybridum), which has flower heads that are pink in the centre and white along the periphery.
It is the flowering tops of red clover that are used medicinally. They consist of the flower heads and the first pair of leaves that grow immediately below. The best time to harvest them is during the second and third week after the plant begins to flower, which is usually the second and third week of June. Before that, there aren’t enough flowers that are ready, and later in the season they become less potent. The darker coloured flower heads also tend to be more potent. It is important to harvest only flower heads in which none of the flowers have been fertilized. When fertilized, the flowers turn a brownish color.
Red clover significantly loses its potency during periods with little sun and lots of rain. If there has been a lot of rain, I don’t recommend harvesting it until after at least a couple of days of good sunshine. During a couple of springs when it was cloudy and rained almost constantly throughout June, I didn’t harvest any red clover at all. The flowers also tend to be inhabited by tiny, elongated black insects that live in many kinds of flowers. The bugs may not be visible when you harvest them, but they are almost always there. When you get them home, it’s a good idea to take the flower heads outside and shake them a handful at a time in a colander so that the bugs will fall out.
Red clover flower heads can be dried and used as a tea. It is important that they are dried relatively quickly. When properly dried, they should retain their colour and not turn brown. They make a pleasant-tasting tea that many people enjoy. The fresh flower heads also make an amazing wine. However, for medicinal purposes, red clover is best used as a tincture made from the fresh flower heads. This is because they are lower in potency when dried and some of their important constituents are poorly soluble in water alone and require some alcohol for extraction.
Red clover is primarily used as a depurative or detoxifying herb. It assists the body in removing waste products and toxins from our fluids and tissues. This makes it very useful for the treatment of any chronic inflammatory condition of the skin, muscles, and joints, as these kinds of conditions always have a toxicity component. Examples of these conditions include acne, eczema, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and gout. As a detoxifier, the actions of red clover are primarily on the lymphatic and urinary systems, with only a mild effect on the liver. It is therefore necessary to combine it with at least one other detoxifying herb that has a stronger action on the liver. Herbs that work well with red clover include burdock root (Arctium spp.), chicory root (Cichorium intybus), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), and yellow dock root (Rumex crispus).
As a lymphatic herb, red clover is effective in the treatment of acute and chronic lymphatic congestion and swollen lymph nodes. For lymphatic conditions, it combines well with cleavers herb and other species of bedstraw (Galium spp.), common horsetail herb (Equisetum arvense), heal-all herb (Prunella vulgaris), stinging nettle herb (Urtica dioica) and purple coneflower root (Echinacea spp.).
Red clover is also very healing for the skin and mucus membranes. It can be used topically for wounds, abrasions, rashes, bites, stings, burns, and other inflammatory conditions of the skin. Internally, it can be used to treat inflammations and ulcerations of the mucus membranes of the mouth, throat, and digestive tract.
RED CLOVER'S INFLUENCE ON ESTROGEN
Although not a traditional use of this herb, with the recent discovery of the estrogenic effects of isoflavones that are found in many of the members of the Pea family, attention has been given to the potential of red clover for treating conditions of the female reproductive system. This is somewhat controversial, with some people claiming that the estrogenic actions are potentially dangerous, and others recommending them as a cure-all for reproductive conditions.
The controversy partly comes from a misunderstanding of the way isoflavones interact with estrogen receptors in our bodies. Isoflavones are partial agonists. This means that they bind to and activate estrogen receptors, but not as strongly as estrogen. As a result, they have the potential to increase estrogen activity in women with low estrogen levels (such as during menopause), but they tend to decrease estrogen activity in women with high estrogen levels because they compete with estrogen for access to receptor sites. (Although this reduces some of the negative consequences of too much estrogen, the effect is largely symptomatic and it is necessary to address the underlying causes of high estrogen levels. This might involve working with appropriate female reproductive herbs or addressing sources of estrogenic toxins, such as those found in drinking water, plastics used in food and beverage containers, and agricultural chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides.) Where estrogenic toxins are an issue, the detoxifying action of red clover can help eliminate them from our bodies.
Red clover is very effective for conditions in which there is an overlap between toxicity and hormonal factors. This includes premenstrual acne, breast swelling and tenderness, fibrocystic breasts, uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, and prostate inflammation.
CONTROVERSIAL CANCER TREATMENT
Controversy also surrounds the use of red clover in the treatment of cancer, for which it is an excellent supporting herb. When herbs are used to treat cancer, the primary protocol is to use a detox formulation consisting of several supporting herbs and a potentizing herb. The latter is a herb that has a very powerful anti-cancer action. It is somewhat like the herbal equivalent of chemotherapy. In fact, many chemotherapy drugs are isolated constituents (often chemically modified) of potentizing anti-cancer herbs. Supporting herbs such as red clover have a reliable but milder anticancer action – their role is to support the action of the potentizing herb. They increase its effectiveness while decreasing its toxicity, both by directly reducing its toxicity, and by allowing it to be more effective at a lower dose. This is important because potentizing herbs contain very powerful chemical constituents that are associated with a higher potential for toxicity than the herbs we use on a more regular basis. Although the supporting herbs do have an important anti-cancer action, in most cases they are not strong enough when used without a potentizing herb.
The controversy concerning the use of red clover for the treatment of cancer is twofold. Firstly, some proponents of its use have suggested that it is effective enough to be used on its own. As I indicated above, this is not likely to produce sufficient results. Secondly, some of the types of cancer for which red clover has been traditionally used include cancers of the breast, uterus, ovaries, and prostate, for which estrogenic activity is considered to be contraindicated. However, red clover can be very helpful in these kinds of cancers because of its regulating effect on estrogen levels, as long as some measure is taken to address the underlying causes of the high estrogen levels when it is a factor.
That being said, I cannot make the same claim for concentrated extracts of isoflavones that are often sold as supplements. I have occasionally seen evidence of excessive estrogen activity in people who are using these supplements. We cannot assume that these extracts are going to behave the same way as the whole, natural herb whose constituents are in a much lower concentration and balanced by the other constituents in the herb. When we start concentrating and isolating constituents from herbs, their actions tend to become less herb-like and more drug-like.
Red clover is a very safe herb; however, it is best if detoxifying herbs such as this one are not used on a regular basis by pregnant and nursing women, as these are not appropriate times to be detoxifying.
Red clover is one of the many common herbs growing all around us that is often taken for granted. We often forget that something doesn’t have to be exotic in order to be useful. Some of the most effective medicines are growing right in our own backyards.