Clover is a prolific source of honey, growing in temperate climates around the world. Clover belongs to the genus Trifolium. Of the 250 species, the most important for honey production are White or Dutch Clover, Alsike Clover, Red Clover and Crimson Clover. It is a popular fodder crop and as a member of the legume family, naturally adds nitrogen to the soil. Most single flower clover honey is produced from agricultural crops although clover also grows wild and finds its way into many honeys. True monofloral Clover honey is somewhat rare as it is often mixed with other honeys and called Clover honey in the retail trade.
Other plants often included in the “clover” family are Alfalfa, Sweet Clover, and Sainfoin Clover but these are from a different genera and should not be included within the broad term of “Clover”. Nevertheless, they all belong to the same leguminous pea family, Fabaceae, that include many excellent honey plants. Another honey plant not to be included in the clover family is Mexican Clover (Richardia scabra L.), also known as Florida Pusley, actually a member of the Rubiaceae family.
Clover honey characteristics are so well known they have become standards of taste and aroma for describing honey. For instance, a honey may be described as having a strong Clover nectar aroma or a light Clover nectar flavor. Clover honey is light colored tending toward light amber depending upon where it is harvested. Its aroma is delicate, sweet and flowery with hints of freshly cut grass or hay; suggestive of spicy cinnamon and plums. Its taste is clean, mild and very sweet that lingers in the mouth. It crystallizes quickly into a fine-grained solid white mass. For this reason it is often creamed.
The word clover is likely derived from old German klaiwaz which refers to the stickiness of the sap of clover or the honey produced by it. This led to Klaifre and then to Old English clafre or modern English clover1
Although clover cultivation started in Europe in the 16th century, clover honey was already well known. It is mentioned in Kilian’s 1599 Dutch dictionary as klauern honigh ‘clover honey’ where it is defined as “mel optimum & candidissimum, ex trifolio pratensi” (‘good, very clear honey from purple clover’)
White clover, Trifolium repens, was introduced into the United States and Canada by early European settlers where its honey producing properties were prized. In the Canadian Farm journal of 1863, J. H. Thomas offers the following advice on winning first prize for honey, “…to be first-class, (honey) should possess the following characteristics; light color, thickness, and pleasant flavor… I can safely say there are only two kinds of honey gathered in Canada which possess all the above qualities. One is gathered from clover, and the other from the abominable nuisance, the Canada Thistle… the proportions are about one part of clover honey to two parts of thistle honey. This, when properly prepared will eclipse all other honey…”
In the USA, the first fifty years of the 1900’s saw vast acreages of clover grown as food for livestock and as a source of nitrogen and humus for soil improvement. Its use has decreased in the last 60 years as it has been replaced with nitrogen fertilizers and soybeans or alfalfa in farming; although it may show some resurgence with the growth of organic farming practices. It is a major source of nectar for what is considered one of the world’s finest honeys.
Wadsworth’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha (1855) loosely based on Ojibwe legends, tells of the “White Man’s Foot”, a reference to White Clover that grew best on foot paths and of the bees (also introduced by the white-man) that preceded the settlers: —
“Wheresoe’er they move, before them
Swarms the stinging fly, the Ahmo,
Swarms the bee, the honey-maker;
Wheresoe’er they tread, beneath them
Springs a flower unknown among us,
Springs the White-man’s Foot in blossom.”
Red Clover Folklore: According to a German legend, the good Lord willed that bees, like men, should rest on Sunday from their work. The bees, in their excessive zeal, disregarded this command of the Creator. The bees were overcome by temptation to gather the abundant honey of the red clover. As a punishment, God closed to them the blossoms of this flower, and never again were they able to gather its nectar—a fact in nature explained by science to be due to its long corolla tube and the short proboscis of the honey bee being unable to reach the nectar at the bottom. Because of this, honey yields from red clover are usually low.
A discussion of clover honey would not be complete without mentioning the Shamrock, the national symbol of Ireland. The Shamrock is a name given to most any kind of clover growing in Ireland, but most agree it is White clover. White clover is one of Ireland’s most important honey plants, yet as natural as it may seem, I have found no references to “Shamrock Honey!” However, if you are particularly lucky, you may be able to find the ideal container to store your Clover honey—An antique ceramic “Belleek Shamrock Honey Pot” made in Ireland.
Traditional or folk medicine: It is a diuretic, expectorant. It is also recommended for relief from diarrhea.
Latin Names: White or Dutch Clover-Trifolium repens; Alsike Clover-Trifolium hybridum; Red Clover-Trifolium pratense; Crimson Clover-Trifolium incarnatum
Honey Origins:United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, China, Russia
Translations:Italian: Miele di trifoglio, French: Miel de trèfle, Spanish: Miel de trebol, Dutch: Klaver honing, German: Kleehonig, Chinese: 三叶草蜜, Russian: Клеверный мёд
1/ An analytic dictionary of English etymology: an introduction, page 31 By Anatoly Liberman