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Running Buffalo Clover

Running Buffalo Clover (Trifolium stoloniferum)

Family: Fabaceae

Synonyms: None

Description: Stoloniferous perennial; leaves long-petioled rising from ground level from a central crown or stolons except for short-petioled, opposite pair subtending the flower head; leaves of runners have 1-2 cm long ovate-lanceolate stipules; flower heads 9-12 mm round with white corolla, often with pink-purple veins.

Flowering: (late April) May - early June; Fruiting: June - July

Similar Species: Trifolium stoloniferum is similar to the common white clover (T. repens) and the rare buffalo clover (T. reflexum), both of which grow in similar habitats.These three species can be distinguished as follows: T. stoloniferum -- stoloniferous, flowering stems unbranched, with a pair of leaves in upper portion; T. repens --stoloniferous, flowering stems naked, arising directly from the rhizome; T. reflexum --not stoloniferous, flowering stems leafy and often branched. Brooks (1983b) provides a chart outlining the differences between these species.

Total Range: USA: IN, KY, MO, OH, PA, WV

Ohio Range: Post-1990: Athens, Brown, Clermont, Fairfield, Hamilton, Hocking, Jackson, Lawrence, Pike, Ross, Vinton and Warren counties. Pre-1990: Belmont, Butler, Clark, Clinton, Delaware, Franklin, Greene, and Montgomery.

Habitats: Gardner (2019) found majority of the populations in Ohio occur in mesic forested habitats with partial to filtered sunlight on ridgetop-upper slopes or lower slopes-terraces. Canopy trees often include sugar maple, black walnut, American elm, common hackberry and white ash. Threats: Habitat destruction, habitat succession leading to severe shading and competition with non-native invasive plants are the most serious threats. A lack of disturbance or too much disturbance are also concerns. The amount of disturbance necessary to maintain a population is yet to be determined. This species once relied on bison to provide the right balance of periodic disturbance, soil enrichment, seed dispersal and seed scarification to maintain itself (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2007). It is unknown whether these requirements can be fulfilled sufficiently enough to maintain running buffalo clover populations in Ohio.

Conservation Potential: There are many unknown factors relating to the success of this species. More information needs to be gathered regarding the dependence of this species on disturbance and its reproductive requirements. With the loss of bison in Ohio’s landscape, other undulates may not be promoting adequate seed germination and dispersal. Existing populations must be managed to prevent succession and maintain filtered sunlight.

Inventory Guidelines: Collect mature flowering or fruiting specimens; note stoloniferous habitat; leave rhizome intact. The identification can be determined from photos. A permit is required from the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves to collect this species.

Comments: Running buffalo clover was apparently locally common in southwestern Ohio before 1900. It is uncertain if the number of herbarium specimens only reflects the level of activity among Cincinnati botanists. After having been presumed extirpated, the species has been found to still be locally common in parts of southwest Ohio and recently near “Scioto Salt Lick” near Jackson, Ohio. West Virginia has the most and largest populations in its range. With Kentucky coming in second and Ohio third with 39 known extant populations (Gardner 2019). New populations are being found on an annual basis since 2013. Without proper management, populations eventually disappear. Roberts & Cooperrider (1982) list this species from Sandusky County. This record is based upon a misidentified specimen of Trifolium repens (OS). Furlow (1991) reports it from Lake County based on a misidentified specimen.

Selected References:

Bartgis, R.L. 1985. Rediscovery of Trifolium stoloniferum Muhl. ex A. Eaton. Rhodora 87: 425-429.

Brooks, R.E. 1983a. Neotypification of Trifolium stoloniferum Muhl. ex A. Eat. (Fabaceae). Taxon 32: 454-455.

Brooks, R.E. 1983b. Trifolium stoloniferum, running buffalo clover: description, distribution and current status. Rhodora 85: 343-354.

Campbell, J.J., M. Evans, M.E. Medley, and N.L. Taylor. 1988. Buffalo clovers in Kentucky (Trifolium stoloniferum and T. reflexum): historical records, presettlement environment, rediscovery, endangered status, cultivation and chromosome number. Rhodora 90(864): 399-418.

Crawford, D.J., E.J. Esselman and J.L. Windus. 1995 and 1996. Genetic variation in running buffalo (Trifolium stoloniferum Muhl. ex A. Eaton) using random amplified polymorphic DNA (RAPD): year one and two of a two year study. Final reports submitted to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Fort Snelling, MN.

Cusick, A.W. 1989. Trifolium stoloniferum (Fabaceae) in Ohio: history, habitats, decline and rediscovery. SIDA 13(4): 467-480.

Furlow, J.J. 1991. The vascular flora of Ohio, Vol. 2, Part 1, Dicotyldeonae: Sauraceae through Fabaceae. Checklist and distribution maps. Copy given by the author to the Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves.

Gardner, R.L. 2019. Following the buffalo traces to the salt licks: Mapping former buffalo traces and salt licks to determine focus areas to survey for new running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum) populations in south-central Ohio, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, Columbus, Ohio. 

Hattenbach, M.J. 1996. Edaphic relations of an endangered plant, Trifolium stoloniferum Muhl. ex A. Eaton. A master’s thesis presented to The Ohio State University.

Gleason, H.A., and A. Cronquist. 1991. Manual of vascular plants of northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York. 910 pp.

Hickey, R.J., M.A. Vincent and S.I. Guttman. 1991. Genetic variation in running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum, Fabaceae). Conservation Biology 5(3): 309-316.

Homoya, M.A., J.R. Aldrich, E.M. Jacquart. 1989. The rediscovery of the globally endangered clover, Trifolium stoloniferum, in Indiana. Rhodora 91(866): 207-212.

Leaugers, S.D. 2016. A review of the current status of running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum) in Ohio. Ohio Biological Survey Notes 6:1-6.

NatureServe. 2007. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 6.2. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available http://www.natureserve.org/explorer. (Accessed: November 21, 2007).

Roberts, M.L. and T.S. Cooperrider, 1982. Dicotyledons. In: Cooperrider, T.S. (ed.). Endangered and threatened plants of Ohio. Ohio Biol. Surv. Biol. Notes No. 16: 48-84.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2007. Running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum) recovery plan: first revision. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fort Snelling, MN. 76 pp."

Updated: 7/2020

For more information:

Division of Natural Areas and Preserves