White prairie clover (Dalea candida) is a native, perennial wildflower throughout most of the Midwest and central U.S. The eastern edge of its native range crosses the Mississippi River and includes Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia. White prairie clover is also commonly grown in garden settings outside of its native range.
General Biology and Life History
White prairie clover can be found growing naturally in short-grass prairies, barrens, savannahs, and openings in sunny, dry woods. It typically grows to a height of around 1-2 feet and blooms in the mid-summer (June and July in Kentucky).
The white flowers produce both pollen and nectar. They form in a cylindrical cluster or flowerhead called an inflorescence. The flowers at the bottom of the inflorescence will bloom first with the bloom slowly progressing up the cluster in a ring. It can take up to a month for the entire inflorescence to bloom.
White prairie clover is in the legume or pea family. Like other members of its family, white prairie clover is a nitrogen fixer and can improve soil conditions for other plants.
Pollinator and Wildlife Uses
White prairie clover can be a valuable plant for both pollinators and wildlife. Its vegetation is relatively high in protein and is commonly eaten by mammalian herbivores. Rabbits are particularly fond of white prairie clover. Numerous insects will also eat the vegetation, including the caterpillars of the southern dogface butterfly and Reakirt’s blue. Several species of birds and small mammals will eat the seeds.
The nectar and pollen produced by the flowers are highly sought after by a variety of flower visiting insects. Many species of bees including honey bees, bumble bees, and smaller native bees are especially attracted to white prairie clover flowers. In fact, several species of cellophane bees in the Colletes genus are pollen specialists for prairie clovers. Small butterflies, wasps, flies, and beetles are among some of the other types of insects that visit the flowers.
Incorporating White Prairie Clover into Your Yard
White prairie clover can be used in pollinator gardens, butterfly gardens, prairie restoration projects, and meadows. It grows best in sunny locations, but can tolerate a little light shade. Because it can grow to a height of 1-2 feet tall, this is not a good clover species to use as a traditional lawn replacement. Repeated heavy “grazing,” even the artificial kind called mowing, can kill it. In fact, if you have a high rabbit population, then you may want to protect young white prairie clover plants so that they have a chance to get established without the rabbits overgrazing them.
In garden settings, white prairie will grow in a variety of soils, but prefers well drained, dry to medium soils. It can put down a taproot that is up to 5 feet long, which makes it highly drought tolerant once it is established. White prairie clover’s drought tolerance also means that it can do well in rocky soils. I don’t advise planting white prairie clover in rich, moist soils because it will often be outcompeted by other plants under those conditions.
White prairie clover will spread some, but isn’t a highly aggressive plant. That makes it a good plant for more manicured and formal gardens. It can also do well in less formal plantings, as long as, you don’t put it up against super aggressive plants. The long taproot makes it difficult to transplant well-established plants. So, give some thought to where you want to plant it, because it might not be easy to move later. Also, like other flowers, it will be most attractive to pollinators if you plant clumps of it instead of single specimens.
White prairie clover isn’t as common in the eastern U.S. as it is further west. However, it can still be found growing naturally in parts of the eastern U.S. White prairie clover can also be an interesting and very beautiful addition to garden settings. Where ever it grows, it can be a valuable resource for a wide variety of pollinators and wildlife.
Backyard Ecology: Exploring Nature in Your Backyard
Nature isn’t just “out there.” It’s all around us, including right outside our doors. Hi, my name is Shannon Trimboli, and I am the host of Backyard Ecology. I live in southcentral Kentucky and am a wildlife biologist, educator, author, beekeeper, and owner of a nursery specializing in plants for pollinators and wildlife conservation. I invite you to join me as we ignite our curiosity and natural wonder, explore our yards and communities, and improve our local pollinator and wildlife habitat. Learn more or subscribe to my email list at www.backyardecology.net.