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What Is a Birdsfoot Trefoil?

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  • Written By: Melanie Smeltzer
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2014
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A birdsfoot trefoil is a perennial herbaceous plant native to areas of Eurasia and North Africa but also cultivated in America and Canada. These flowering plants are leafy legumes with slender, erect, or prostrate stems that bear small branches, oval leaves, and yellow-orange pea pod-like blossoms. There are roughly 25 different varieties of this plant, all of which are considered to be useful in a number of ways.

Given the large number of varieties, it is not surprising to find that these long-lived perennial plants can vary in height from 1.9 inches (5 cm) to 1.6 feet (or about 50 cm). The thin stems that make up the body of the birdsfoot trefoil burst forth from a deep taproot. Branches develop along these stems and can reach lengths of one foot (30 cm) to two feet (60 cm). The medium-green leaves are oval-shaped, pointed at the tips, and bear many lobes.

Two of the most noticeable features of the birdsfoot trefoil are the bright flowers and seed pods. The blossoms, which bloom from late spring to late summer, were once called “butter and eggs,” as a reference to the distinct, yellow-orange hue of the their petals. Giving this plant its unusual name, the cylindrical seed pods are attached at distinct right angles to each other. This growth pattern is said to give the plant the appearance of a bird's foot. Initially green, these seed pods turn tan or brown once fully mature.

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Although the exact origin of the birdsfoot trefoil is not fully known, it was first noted in northern Europe during 1597. Despite this, actual cultivation of this plant was not recorded until around 1900. Though many believe this perennial was first introduced into North America in the 1700s, it was not recognized until 1934. Since then, it has become a valuable plant widely cultivated for a number of purposes.

Predominantly used for livestock, the birdsfoot trefoil is often used in a number of different animal feeds, as it continues to grow when other cool-weather grasses go dormant and it does not cause bloat, like other legume plants. Additionally, these plants can be used for garden ornamentation or to aid in preventing water and wind erosion. Wild animals may also find these plants useful, as many types have a low-growing habit, which may be used to provide shelter and food to many wildlife species.

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