Subterranean Clover

Lizard ‘clover season’ is from spring to early summer. One to look out for is the small and unassuming Subterranean Clover, found on shallow soils or amongst short turf close to the sea.
Photo: Steve Townsend

Scientific name: Trifolium subterraneum

Other common names: Burrowing Clover

Cornish name: Meilhionan is the general word for clover

What to look for:

  • Flowers: Creamy-coloured flowers in clusters
  • Leaves: Small, trifoliate leaves, which are hairy
  • Length: Up to 20 cm
  • Where: Common in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, in short turf and bare sandy soil usually close to the sea
  • When: The flowers appear from May to June
  • Habit: Prostrate
  • Similar to: Other small hairy clovers, such as Rough Clover

The Lizard is of course famous for its rare clovers, some of which are only found here in the UK. Subterranean Clover is not strictly one of these – it is found in other parts of the country – but it is not common nationally, and the Lizard is one of its strongholds.

It is easy to miss. It is a small annual plant and prostrate, winding its way through the grasses of short turf and heath or across shallow sandy soil, usually close to the sea.

You may think it has a long name for a small plant. Its Latin species name (subterraneum) and both common names refer to the way it turns its flowerheads upside down when it has finished flowering, burrowing its seeds into the ground, ready to germinate and bloom the following year. 

Did you know…?

…Now largely found near the coast, Subterranean Clover used to have inland sites: many of these were unfortunately lost in the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, although populations are now relatively stable.

…Subterranean Clover is cultivated for animal fodder and is effective (like other clovers) at weed suppression and fixing nitrogen.

More information and references:

Mabey, R., 1997. Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus, London.

Rose, F. and O’Reilly, C., 2006. The Wild Flower Key, 2nd edition. Frederick Warne, London.

Stace, C., 2010. New Flora of the British Isles, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Published: May 2014
Author: Amanda Scott
Photos: Steve Townsend