Trifolium macrocephalum

This is the second in an informal series on my footwear and flowers.

I first encountered this species along the Colockum Pass Road in Washington, but it was in the late evening and I didn’t take any images. I knew I wanted to see it again, though, and photograph it. The second time was in northeastern Oregon near La Grande, where I encountered a large population, but all the plants were in fruit. Third time is the charm they say, and a stop along Forest Service Road 3500 near Ellensburg, Washington in mid-May of last year finally resulted in a photograph. That’s not to say I had a lot of opportunity to photograph these plants; the echoes of gunshots originating from the other side of the hill dissuaded me from sticking around too long. I generally like peace and quiet while photographing.

The specific epithet macrocephalum translates to “large” and “head”, so it is fitting that this species is commonly known as either largehead clover or big-head clover. I’m uncertain as to whether it has the largest inflorescence of any of the 250 or so species of Trifolium, but it does deserve the name. The inflorescence of the photographed plant is a bit smaller overall than those I observed in northeast Oregon–the Oregon inflorescences were about the size of a large lime, and more than double the size of any other species of clover than I’ve encountered to-date.

This population of plants in Washington also had fewer plants in any given area than the population from northeast Oregon. I suspect if I were to catch the northeastern Oregon population in full flower, it would look something like this: Trifolium macrocephalum (featured in the weblog The Wildlife News). Trifolium macrocephalum is native to dry regions of northwestern continental USA, where its preferred habitat is open shallow-soiled rocky areas, or lithosols. Additional photographs are available via the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture: Trifolium macrocephalum.

Trifolium macrocephalum
Trifolium macrocephalum

12 responses to “Trifolium macrocephalum”

  1. Walt Bubelis

    I would run across this in Swakane Canyon which is north of Wenatchee when doing field work on my masters, many years ago. Not numerous but always impressive.

  2. Mark Egger

    It’s also relatively easy to find in sage meadows a fair ways up the Swauk Pass Road, W of Ellensburg.

  3. elizabeth a airhart

    charles martin heade would enjoy your company daniel
    the first picture brought him to my minds bank of triva
    i have not been to the far west born nj live in florida
    my size nine shoes have to be so careful of the wee folk
    thank you daniel and company

  4. Wendy Cutler

    I have such trouble identifying plants, but I was pretty sure right away that that was your footwear. I like the series – I was away for the first instance of it – that was a good posting too.
    On a google search for Trifolium macrocephalum fruits, I saw two websites right on the first hit page promoting it for growing under apple trees – to make the apples tastier and store longer. That wouldn’t seem to be its preferred growing situation at all, but it should be a very pretty sight with apple trees in bloom. Maybe you’ll start seeing it cultivated.

  5. Toinette Lippe

    Why is it called Trifolium? Your pic shows leaves with six, seven, and eight lobes.Is this just sheer exuberance of the part of this particular plant? Perhaps it wasn’t good at math.

  6. Sara

    my first thought at photo #1? Red Clover. (Yeah me!) not the red clover we grow here in Missouri, but red clover all the same.
    If I remember correctly, red clover helps fix nitrogen in the soil – so it would work well under heavy feeders like apple trees. Plus when the deer come to raid the apples, they will have some clover for forage.
    I really like the shoe photo – it’s a very functional way of showing the size of the plant – much more creative than a ruler or a metric scale.

  7. susan

    There is a lovely patch of Bigheads on Nature Conservancy land on Monument Hill in the Beezley HIlls north of Quincy, Washington. I took these photos on a lithosol flower walk last May 5. You can see the context of thin soils and other lithosol-loving plants, such as stiffsage (Artemisia rigida) and Hooker’s balsam (Balsamorhiza hookeri).
    and one a bit closer:
    Those clover heads really are huge if you are used to seeing the regular yard clover that bees love, but I didn’t think to put my foot in there for scale! I guess if you are familiar with Hooker’s balsamroot, you could tell how big the clover is.

  8. Sue Vargas

    Surprizing this one has not caught on with native plants nurseries. Needs more PR perhaps. Very impressive.

  9. Eleanor Ryan

    Handsome native clover. I wish that seeds were available for planting in gardens. Both bees and butterflies would love those flowers. Eleanor

  10. Daniel Mosquin

    Toinette, it is one of the exceptions in the genus. Most clovers do have 3 leaves (and the occasional lucky one has 4).

  11. michael aman

    I loved this photo, plant, and write-up. Thanks.

  12. Thibault

    Thank you Daniel. I am working on Okanagan restorative soil native plants. This one seems just right!

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