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Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) – Weekly Weeder #27

Birds-Foot Trefoil is also known as broadleaf birdsfoot trefoil, Birdfoot Deervetch, bacon and eggs, Dutchman’s clogs, lady’s slippers, granny’s toenails and Devil’s fingers.

Birds-foot trefoil blossom @ Common Sense Home

Range and Identification of Birdsfoot Trefoil

Birdsfoot trefoil was introduced from Europe as a forage crop, and has now spread throughout most of North America, except for Utah and a few states in the southeast. (see map). It spreads readily in disturbed soils, and has been planted along roadsides in many areas for erosion control because it spreads readily but stays low to the ground (6-24 inches at maturity). Birdsfoot trefoil prefers, dry, sunny locations – with our drought this year, it's taken over large patches of some of the neighbor's lawns.

birdsfoot trefoil in the yard
Birds-foot trefoil in the neighbor's yard

The plant is a perennial with a deep tap root and side roots along the surface. (It's one of the few plants that has stayed green this summer.)  The leaves are composed of five parts, a 3-part upper leaflet group (leading to the “tre” in “trefoil” and two lower leaflets attached at the stalk base.

birds-foot trefoil leaf
Birdsfoot trefoil leaf

Flowers are bright yellow at the beginning of their bloom time, becoming more orange as they age. They resemble pea blossoms about 1/2 inch across, and are clustered in masses at the top of stems.

birdsfoot trefoil
Cluster of birdsfoot trefoil

The common name refers to the seed pods, which look like a bird's foot (the names “granny's toenails” and Devil's fingers” also refer to the seed pods). The pods are slender and pea-like, abut 1″ long. Birds-foot trefoil is a legume, so it does help to add nitrogen to the soil. (See Wildflowers Of Wisconsin for more info.)

Birdsfoot Trefoil for Food and Medicine

Birdsfoot trefoil is enjoyed by a variety of wildlife. Illinois Wildflowers states:

Various long-tongued bees are the primary pollinators of the flowers. Many kinds of insects undoubtedly feed on the foliage, including the caterpillars of the butterfly Colias eurytheme (Orange Sulfur). The foliage is mildly toxic to livestock and not particularly high in protein for a member of the Bean family. Not much is known about the faunal relationships of this exotic species, but the Lotus spp. of the western United States have foliage that is attractive to rabbits, deer, and other mammalian herbivores. Their seeds are consumed by the Mourning Dove, Ring-Necked Pheasant, and various small rodents.

Wildflowers of Wisconsin says it is a nectar source for European skipper and Sulphur butterflies. The USDA NRCS also suggests that “birdsfoot trefoil is a choice food for Canada goose, deer, and elk”. (Visit the USDA NRCS link for detailed information on cultivating birds-foot trefoil for forage.)  Milk from cows fed on trefoil hay contains more vitamins A and E than those fed on alfalfa (Handbook of Legumes of World Economic Importance, Plenum Press, NY, James A. Duke, 1981). (source)

Birdsfoot trefoil contains cyanogenic glycosides, which make it toxic for human consumption. (See Encyclopedia of Entomology)

Herbs2000 discusses potential medicinal use of birdsfoot trefoil:

The remedies made from the bird's foot trefoil is classified by herbalist as possessing an anti-spasmodic and sedative effect and these remedies are recommend for the treatment of problems such as heart palpitations, persistent and chronic nervousness, long term depression, and sleep disorders such as insomnia. No specific scientific verification for these supposed benefits of the herb exists.

Natural Medicinal Herbs provides more information:

All parts of the plant are poisonous, containing cyanogenic glycosides (hydrogen cyanide). In small quantities, hydrogen cyanide has been shown to stimulate respiration and improve digestion, it is also claimed to be of benefit in the treatment of cancer. In excess, however, it can cause respiratory failure and even death. This species is polymorphic for cyanogenic glycosides. The flowers of some forms of the plant contain traces of prussic acid and so the plants can become mildly toxic when flowering. They are completely innocuous when dried.

The plant was also used to dye fabrics during the colonial period.

As always, any medical information is for informational purposes only. Always exercise caution when using any wild plants and make sure you have positively identified the plant.

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  1. Thanks for including this one in the big WR! This plant has been drifting into our property from our roadside and driveway. Since it looked like a legume, I figured it was a nitrogen fixer and possible livestock feed, and have given it a pass. It is pretty, my chickens won’t touch it, guess I won’t be letting it into the garden or my compost pile. We do have a little flock of elk colonizing our neighborhood, so maybe some special guests will drop by sometime!

    1. Because of the potential risk involved with this one, I’d advise you to try and seek out a more detailed herbal if you’re interested in using it for that purpose. I have not come across detailed use instructions online or in the herbals I have, probably because of that risk. Most herbs are commonly used to make teas or infusion for treatment. Common Mullein is used in many of the same applications, without the toxicity risks –

      1. Glycosides are very sensitive to heat. Heating and drying destroy the compounds rendering them inert. Which is why we can bake.with bitter almonds and how the native Americans used to consume choke cherries with the pits smashed in them

  2. OH, that little yellow flower is really pretty…so interesting and delicate 🙂 Love and hugs from the ocean shores of California, Heather 🙂