Plant of the Week

Trifolium nanum range map.
Trifolium nanum range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Close-up of dwarf clover.
This close-up of dwarf clover was taken on Penitente Peak at 12,249 feet in the Pecos Wilderness, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Mats of dwarf clover.
Mats of dwarf clover hug the ground in the alpine tundra. The reddish plants between the clover mats are subalpine stonecrop (Sedum lanceolatum ssp. alpinum). Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Dwarf Clover (Trifolium nanum)

By Charlie McDonald

There are 95 species of clover in the United States and dwarf clover is the runt of the bunch. But, this plant justifies its small stature with where it manages to grow. Dwarf clover is at home on mountain tops in the Rocky Mountains from Montana to northern New Mexico. It is often found at elevations above 11,000 feet, living in the seemingly barren alpine tundra above the elevation where trees will grow.

Harsh growing conditions characterize the alpine tundra environment. Winters have long periods of sub-zero temperatures, blizzards, and high winds. The summers are short, freezing temperatures are possible at any time, there are harsh drying winds, and the sunlight is intense. The soils tend to be rocky, dry, and nutrient poor.

To survive in the tundra environment, dwarf clover has adopted a growth strategy that is successful for many alpine tundra plants. It grows in ground-hugging mats or sometimes low cushion-like mounds, its small leaves stay compact against the plant’s surface, and its flower buds hide between the leaves until many of them pop out at once to cover the plant with color. The mat or cushion shape helps protect tender parts from frost and high winds, helps retain moisture, and holds in heat.

Like many alpine tundra plants, dwarf clover needs to be seen close-up to appreciate its beauty. But, a summer visit to the alpine tundra is exhilarating and well worth the effort to see alpine clover and its other ground-hugging tundra friends.

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Ute Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes diluvialis).
Ute Lady's Tresses (Spiranthes diluvialis)