Of the hundreds of different clover species out there, white clover (Trifolium repens) is the most common. It is also known as Dutch clover.
Though this plant isn’t native to North America (it hails from Europe), it has naturalized to the point of being part of the everyday landscape. Many homeowners have even adopted white clover lawns as a more eco-friendly alternative to traditional turf grasses.
Whether you view this plant as a weed or welcome ground cover, white clover is an interesting specimen. This article covers the central white clover growth stages that make up the plant’s life cycle.
Conditions for Growing White Clover
White clover belongs to the legume family. These plants are most famous for their ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. As a result, clovers and other legumes are frequently used as cover crops in agricultural settings and beyond.
Most of us have encountered white clover sprouting up among turf grass. White clover is a tough perennial that tolerates drought and impoverished soils. The presence of white clover is often seen as a sign that your lawn isn’t getting the care it needs.
But what if you want to grow white clover on purpose? Lucky for you, it’s pretty easy.
White clover is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 10 and equivalent climates around the world. It can grow in full or partial sun and tolerates all types of soil. Since white clover can access nitrogen in the atmosphere, fertilizer is rarely needed to keep this plant happy and healthy.
A great thing about clover is it doesn’t need to be mowed. Plants typically reach about 4 inches tall — the flowers extend a bit further past the three-leaved foliage.
White Clover Growth Rate
It takes an average of 30 days for a clover seed to develop into a mature plant, but it can still take several months for a large patch of clover to fully establish itself.
As I’ll touch on later in this article, white clover gets bigger by spreading rather than growing up. White clover possesses specialized, horizontal stems called stolons that creep along the soil’s surface. These stolons contain nodes capable of producing new roots and shoots along their lengths.
According to North Carolina State University, white clover can spread 12 inches from its original planting site. When grown together, just a few dozen white clover plants can form a lush, thick mat that chokes out weeds and protects the soil underneath.
White Clover Growth Stages
The main downside of using white clover in place of turf grass is that the plant itself is relatively short-lived. Homeowners may need to reseed the area every 2 to 3 years to maintain a thick clover lawn. With that said, if allowed to spread via both seed and stolon, white clover can take over a large area with relative ease.
1. Seed Germination
Clover seeds are highly adaptable and will often sprout just sitting on top of the soil. According to Clemson University, the ideal conditions for germination are about 50 to 85°F.
If everything goes to plan, germination can begin in just 2 to 3 days! In many cases, however, you may need to wait up to 10 days to see the first signs of sprouting.
I’m sure we all know what a clover looks like. Though you may have spent time searching for a four-leaved clover at some point in your life, the vast majority of plants have trifoliate leaves.
White clover is no exception. However, at this point in the plant’s life cycle, it hasn’t yet developed true leaves.
Every white clover seedling starts life with two small, singular leaves. These are called cotyledons. Cotyledons develop within the seed embryo and help ‘feed’ the young plant as it sprouts. (In this sense, I like to think of a seed’s cotyledons as analogous to the yolk of a bird egg.)
Next comes the clover’s very first genuine leaf. But wait… it’s not trifoliate either.
Interestingly, white clover seedlings produce one singular (non-trifoliate) genuine leaf at the very start. This leaf is identical to the rest of the plant’s future leaves in all other ways.
After the cotyledons and that first genuine leaf, you’ll finally start to see those trademark trifoliate leaves emerge. Trifoliate leaves should appear around 14 days after seeding.
3. Vegetative Growth
The appearance of the seedling’s true leaves means that photosynthesis is underway. At this stage, the white clover is well-equipped to start growing bigger both above and below ground.
White clover has a prostrate, or ground-hugging, growth habit. The stems (stolons) grow along the ground, sending up leaves and putting down roots as they go. Each white clover leaf possesses three leaflets attached to a petiole (leaf stem).
4. Root Development
White clover roots are fibrous and relatively shallow. Most roots remain within the top 2 feet of soil. This is actually advantageous to the clover plant since it can access water and fresh organic matter near the soil’s surface that deeper roots would miss.
As the roots mature, tiny, swollen spots called nodules form. Nodules support a crucial symbiotic relationship with soil-borne bacteria known as rhizobia. Clover’s relationship with this beneficial bacteria is what allows it to fix nitrogen through its roots.
Once established,clover is easy to spot as little white flowers in grass that pop-up freely throughout the summer months. Each flower head is actually composed of up to 100 florets, which all have their own reproductive structures. In other words, each floret is capable of producing its own seed.
White clover flowers are borne atop stalks that grow from the base of the leaf petioles. Those using white clover as a lawn substitute can safely mow the flowers down if desired.
White clover is popular with tons of different insect pollinators, including honey bees. You may be familiar with clover honey, which is produced by bees feeding on white clover and related species.
While white clover requires cross-pollination to go to seed, the sheer number of flowers in any given area makes this a non-issue.
After successful pollination, the seeds start developing and can germinate on their own within just 12 days. However, white clover seeds generally aren’t biologically mature until 30 days after pollination.
You can look closely at a fertilized clover flower to see the individual seed pods that replace the small florets. Because of the anatomy of a clover flower, each flowerhead can produce up to 100 seeds.
When to Harvest White Clover Seeds
You may want to collect seeds at the end of the growing season to then sow the following year. This can help keep your white clover nice and thick, or you can use harvested seeds to create a whole new patch on your property.
Wait for the flowers to dry before collecting the flowerheads. This usually occurs 15 to 30 days after the flowers first bloom. Then simply pluck the seed pods from the flowerhead and store them in an airtight container.
FAQs White Clover
What is the lifespan of white clover?
White clover is a herbaceous perennial, meaning that the top growth (stems and leaves) will die back to the ground if temperatures get too cold while the roots survive. A single white clover plant can easily live for 4 to 5 years.
- North Carolina State University White clover growth habit
- Clemson University White clover seed germination
Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.