Table of Contents
Kaiser, C.J. and M.E. Heath. 1990. Big trefoil: A new legume for pastures on
fragipan soils. p. 191-194. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in
new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
Big Trefoil: A New Legume for Pastures on Fragipan Soils
C.J. Kaiser and M.E. Heath
- Nutritive Value
- Diseases and Pests
- FUTURE PROSPECTS
- Table 1
- Fig. 1
Big trefoil, Lotus uliginosus Schkuhr (Terrell 1986, Tutin et al.
1964-76, Heath 1970), introduced over 100 years ago into the United States
(Henson et al. 1962), is of European origin from the Mediterranean northwards
to 60°N. Naturalized in the Pacific Northwest big trefoil is used for
pasture, hay and seed production. It has shown good adaptation on wet soils in
Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida (Heath 1970) and is also grown in
Minnesota, Indiana, and Illinois (Fig. 1) as well as Australia and New Zealand.
Big trefoil, Lotus uliginosus has been also described as L.
major, and L. pedunculatus Cav. (Heath 1970). The L.
corniculatus group (Tuten et al. 1964-76) includes twelve species, among
them are uliginosus, pedunculatus, and corniculatus.
Big trefoil should not be confused with Birdsfoot trefoil (L.
corniculatus Cav). Birdsfoot trefoil is extremely variable and easily
confused with big trefoil. Seed used for commercial plantings of birdsfoot
trefoil produce plants that differ widely. Under natural conditions regional
strains of birdsfoot trefoil have developed. These strains of birdsfoot
trefoil have been given cultivar designation. For the most part shape of
leaflets, habit, and size of birdsfoot trefoil plants have been the basis of
differentiation, but in some cases color and number of florets per flower umbel
have been recognized.
The florets of big trefoil are brilliant yellow. Two characteristics
distinguishing the species L. uliginosus Schkuhr and L.
corniculatus Cav are the rhizomes and number of florets per flower umbel
(McKee and Schoth 1941, Tutin et al. 1964-76). L. uliginosus Schkuhr
usually has eight to twelve florets per flower umbel (rarely 5 to 7); rhizomes
are spreading; 2n = 12. L. corniculatus Cav. has five florets per
flower umbel, (sometimes 6, and rarely 7); rhizomes are not spreading except
for the cultivar 'Kalo'; 2n = 24.
The variety 'Grasslands Maku' developed at Palmerston North, New Zealand
(Armstrong 1974) is an intraspecific hybrid tetraploid (2n = 4x = 24). Bees
are essential for the production of big trefoil seed. Plants are incapable of
spontaneous self pollination (Silow 1930), but are self-fertile after
artificial self pollination. Big trefoil plants cross pollinate readily. Big
trefoil, like birdsfoot trefoil, is a long-day plant requiring a 16-hour
photoperiod for complete floral induction.
Big trefoil is a perennial having fine stems, relatively large leaves, shallow
rooted with vigorous underground stems or rhizomes (Armstrong 1974). Instead
of big trefoil plants thinning as they get older and the stems getting coarser
as with alfalfa, the rhizome keeps sending up new leafy stems, and as a result
the stems stay fine. Big trefoil is not tall growing. The plants grow from
0.6 to 1.0 m tall, but with the fine stems it does not stand up too well unless
supported by vigorous growing grasses (Howell 1948). The crown is below
ground. Shading is avoided in tall grass by rapid stem elongation to elevate
the leaves above the shade canopy. High temperatures (22°C) are necessary
for rapid growth (Lambert and Boyd 1974). Maximum growth of big trefoil occurs
in summer and early fall.
Big trefoil's greatest promise is on wet, poorly drained soils in the humid
areas of the United States. Once the plants are well established they can
withstand surface flooding. They have been observed to survive on soil,
where the rainfall averages 1020-1170 mm annually. These soils are often
water-logged in winter and very early spring. There is little, if any, lasting
snow cover during winter. Diurnal temperatures frequently fluctuate-above and
below freezing. Under these conditions big trefoil survives where other tap
rooted pasture legumes do not.
Soil fragipans restrict moisture movement as well as plant root depth
development. Fragipans were formed under low pH in humid areas (Zachary and
Ulrich 1965). Plant roots will not penetrate the fragipan unless through a
cleavage or crevice.
Big trefoil is adapted to fragipan soils maintained in tall fescue (Festuca
arundinacea Schreb.) pastures (Heath 1970, Kaiser and Faix 1982). When big
trefoil is grown alone, much winter killing, and plant damage has been observed
compared to no winter damage when grown with an adapted perennial cool season
grass in southern Illinois and Indiana. Big trefoil is grown in the Pacific
Northwest USA on wet, poorly drained soils and upland areas with high rainfall.
It is not as winter-hardy as birdsfoot trefoil (L. corniculatus), which
may restrict its adaptation in northern areas where birdsfoot trefoil is
Big trefoil appears to be well adapted in the "tall fescue belt" (Kaiser and
Cate 1974). A study was conducted at the University of Illinois Dixon Springs
Agricultural Center to observe big trefoil in tall fescue sod grazed by sheep.
Big trefoil was no-till seeded on April 3, 1976 at 1.12 kg/ha into six
established tall fescue sheep pastures on fragipan soil. The recommended
seeding rate for big trefoil is 3.36 kg/ha. No-till seeding was made using the
John Deere 1500 power till drill. Seed was inoculated using a commercial
preparation. Pastures were mob grazed by sheep annually to permit big trefoil
seed production. Pasture fields were 2.5 ha in size. Plant spread (creeping)
and percent stand measurements were made five years after planing in the fall
of 1981. Individual plants were selected to determine the rate of creeping.
Average spread of individual plants after five years was 457 rnm. The range in
spread was from 432 to 508 mm. Big trefoil plants appeared to spread at the
rate of 76 mm per year into dense tall fescue sod.
Big trefoil appears to be a long-lived legume. Percent stand increased in each
of six growing seasons at Dixon Springs, Illinois (Kaiser and Faix 1982). Each
year the plants appeared to become more vigorous and to establish more rapidly
in moist areas and grass waterways. Big trefoil tolerated standing water in
grass waterways. It appeared very aggressive in the dense tall fescue sod
indicating shade tolerance. Big trefoil can tolerate lower levels of soil
fertility and higher acidity than white clover (Trifolium repens) and is
one of the slowest legumes to establish (Armstrong 1974).
Inoculation is an absolute requirement for big trefoil establishment. Big
trefoil requires a specific inoculatum for N fixation. It will not become
nodulated with cultures used for birdsfoot trefoil or other legumes. The fast
growing acid tolerant strain of Rhizobium loti holds a competitive
advantage in nodulation of big trefoil over the slower growing acid sensitive
strain Boradyrhizobium sp. Lotus (Cooper et al. 1985). Best stands of
big trefoil were established when up to five times the manufacturers
inoculation recommendation of Rhizobium lupini was used (Lowther and
The nutrient value of big trefoil is believed to be equal to birdsfoot trefoil.
Several feeding studies with dairy and beef cattle have shown big trefoil to be
equal to alfalfa when cut for hay in the midbloom stage. Percent crude protein
of big trefoil pasture (8-12 mm tall) was 28.5 in an Oregon test (Howell 1948).
Close grazing by sheep over an extended period of time has not reduced stands.
It withstands grazing by deer and elk and has also been tested in pastures used
by geese and widgeon.
The presence of 3-nitropripronic acid (3-NPA) in big trefoil has been a concern
to livestock producers. Several phenotypes grown in Illinois were evaluated
(Kaiser et al. 1983). All phenotypes evaluated were non-toxic to livestock.
Big trefoil is a non-bloating legume (Jones et al. 1970). The leaves and stems
contain condensed tannins which render forage proteins insoluble by
precipitating the soluble leaf proteins that form foams during ruminant
digestion, thus preventing bloat.
'Grasslands Maku' big trefoil contains 20-30 g of condensed tannins/kg of dry
matter when grown in high fertility soils and 70-80 g of condensed tannins/kg
of dry matter when grown in acid low fertility soils (Berry and Forss 1983).
High condensed tannin concentration of big trefoil grown under low acid and low
soil fertility, conditions reduced live weight gains and wool growth in sheep
(Barry 1985), however, increasing levels of condensed tannins concentration
conferred a beneficial effect on nutritive value by increasing duodenal N
retention (Barry et al. 1986). A compromise concentration of condensed tannins
which will give adequate animal performance and confer bloat resistance is
30-40g of condensed tannins/kg of big trefoil dry matter. This ratio is best
achieved when big trefoil is grazed with a companion grass.
Four diseases have been reported in big trefoil (Wells 1953). The blackpatch
fungus (causal organism of the blackpatch disease) results in an aerial
blighting of leaves and stems during warm weather from April through October.
Rhizoctonia solani (causal agent of summer blight) produces a rapid
aerial blighting of leaves and stems during hot, humid weather from May through
September. Sclerotium rolfsii (causal organism of southern blight) was
first recognized as part of the big trefoil blight complex at Tifton, Georgia
in July, 1953. This fungus attacks leaves and stems where free moisture is
present during hot humid weather. Colletotrichum truncatum
(causal organism of big trefoil anthracnose), which causes leaf spot and leaf
and stem blight, was first recognized as a part of the big trefoil blight
complex at Tifton in July of 1953. Anthrancnose was reported (Kaiser 1983) at
Dixon Springs, Illinois in 1982.
Lygus bugs (Lygus spp.) are a serious threat to big trefoil seed
production in Oregon. They suck juices from big trefoil plants causing blasted
buds, blossom drop, and shriveled seed. Heavy infestations of lygus bugs
during flowering can cause almost complete failure of plants to form pods.
Big trefoil plants are sometimes killed or severely injured by moth larvae
Walshia spp. Individual plants may show damage caused by the moth
larvae, or the damage may appear in patches containing numerous plants.
The potato leafhopper, a troublesome pest on alfalfa, also may cause damage to
birdsfoot trefoil (Monteith et al. 1929). However, no damage was noted on big
trefoil by workers in the "tall fescue belt" (Heath 1970, Kaiser and Faix 1982).
Six big trefoil cultivars have been used in the U.S. (Table 1). 'Beaver',
'Columbia' and `Marshfield' (Billings and Swanson 1974) were planted in the
northwest (Fig. 1). 'Grasslands Maku' (Kaiser and Faix 1982) and
'Kaiser'(Heath 1970) were shown to be suitable for southern Illinois. `Border'
is farm selected from Oregon near the Washington border and not officially
recognized as a cultivar.
Big trefoil may be best suited as a pasture legume in poorly drained soils in
humid areas. Naturalized ecotypes of big trefoil appear to be strongly
perennial and fit the environmental model of hill land fragipan soils (Heath
1970) in the "tall fescue belt" where it competes aggressively with tall
fescue. Big trefoil is found growing in marshes and wet lands of Europe (Tutin
et al. 1964-76). It compares favorably to alfalfa and does not cause bloat in
ruminants. It appears to be a very efficient supplier of nitrogen once
nodulated. Big trefoil appears to possess the required characteristics for a
companion legume in perennial cool season grass pastures. It's greatest
promise is on poorly drained and fragipan soils, grassed waterways and wet
Our best estimate is that 5000 ha of a big trefoil (Swanson 1988) are now grown
(1988) in the U.S. A major part of this area has been planted by the USDA
Forest Service and State Fish and Wildlife services of Oregon and Washington
for utilization by deer and elk in logged over areas. Deer and elk graze on
big trefoil in preference to young tree seedlings, thus allowing the young
seedlings to become established. Recent research in Europe, New Zealand,
Australia and the United States suggest that big trefoil has the potential for
use on wet land sites, fragipan soils and humid areas for cattle and sheep
pastures as well as for wildlife.
The advantages of big trefoil are: it spreads by rhizomes, is long-lived in
perennial grass pasture, will tolerate acid soil conditions, is adapted to wet
or poorly drained soils, nutrient value compares favorably to alfalfa, and it
does not cause bloat in cattle or sheep.
The disadvantages of big trefoil are: it lacks drought resistance, is not as
winter-hardy as birdsfoot trefoil, requires a specific inoculum (different from
birdsfoot trefoil), has less seedling vigor than alfalfa and red clover, and is
not tall growing.
- Armstrong, C.S. 1974. 'Grasslands Maku' tetraploid lotus (Lotus
pedunculatus Cav). New, Zealand J. Exp. Agric. 2:333-336.
- Barry, T.N. 1985. The role of condensed tannins in the nutritional valve of
Lotus pedunculatus for sheep. Paper 3, Rates of body and wool growth.
British J. Nutr. 54:211-217.
- Barry, T.N., and D.A. Forss. 1983. The condensed tannin content of vegetative
Lotus pedunculatus, its regulation by fertilizer application, and effect
upon protein solubility. J. Sci. Food Agric. 34:1047-1056.
- Barry, T.N., T.R. Manley, and S.J. Duncan. 1986. The role of condensed tannins
in the nutritional value of Lotus pedunculatus for sheep. Paper 4, sites
of carbohydrate and protein digestion as influenced by dietary reactive tannin
concentrations. British J. Nutr. 55:123-137.
- Billings, W.H., and S.L. Swanson. 1974. Registration of Marshfield Trefoil.
Crop Sci. J. 14:907.
- Cooper, J.E., M. Wood, and A.J. Bjourson. 1985. Nodulation of Lotus
pedunculatus in acid rooting solution by fast and slow growing rhizobia.
Soil, Biol. Biochem. 17:487-492.
- Heath, M.E. 1970. Naturalized big trefoil (Lotus pedunculatus Cav.)
ecotype discovered in Crawford County,, Indiana. Proc. Indiana Acad. Sci.
- Henson, Paul R. and H.A. Schoth. 1962. The trefoils-adaptation and culture.
USDA-ARS Agric. Handb. 223.
- Howell, H.B. 1948. A legume for acid soils Lotus uliginosus. Oregon
Agric. Exp. Sta. Bul. 456.
- Jones, W.T., J.W. Lyttleton, and R.T.J. Clarke. 1970. Bloat in Cattle. XXXIII.
The soluble proteins in legume forages in New Zealand, and their relationship
to bloat. New Zealand J. Agri. Res. 13:149-156.
- Kaiser, C.J. 1983. Big trefoil selections. Illinois Agr. Expt. Sta. DSAC
- Kaiser, C.J. and H.A. Cate. 1974. Emerging great rivers forage-livestock belt.
Forage and Grassland Prog. 15:5-6
- Kaiser, C.J. and J.J. Faix. 1982. Field establishment of big trefoil. Illinois
Agr. Exp. Sta. DSAC 10:64-65.
- Kaiser, C.J., M.C. Williams, and M.E. Mansfield. 1983. Evaluation of big
trefoil phenotypes for 3-NPA. Illinois Agr. Expt. Sta. DSAC 48:84-85.
- Lambert, J.P., and A.F. Boyd. 1974. An evaluation of five varieties of Lotus
Pedunculatus Cav. compared with 'Grasslands Huia' White clover under
grazing at Kaikohe. New Zealand J. Exp. Agric. 2:359-363.
- Lowther, W.L., and R.P. Littlejohn. 1984. Effect of strain rhizobia,
inoculation level, and pelleting on the establishment of oversown Lotus
pedunculatus 'Grasslands Maku'. New Zealand J. Agric. Res. 12:287-294.
- McKee, Roland and H.A. Schoth. 1941. Birdsfoot trefoil and big trefoil. USDA
- Monteith, J.J. and E.A. Hollowell. 1929. Pathological symptoms in legumes
caused by the potato leafhopper. Agric. Res. 38:649-677.
- Silow, R.A. 1930. Self fertility of Lotus sp. Welsh Plant Breeding
Station, Aberystwyth Bull., Series H; 12:234-240.
- Swanson, S.L. 1988. Personal Communication. USDA-SCS Plant Materials Center,
- Terrell, E.E. 1986. A checklist of names of 3,000 Vascular Plants of Economic
Importance. ARS-USDA Agr. Handb. 305.
- Tutin, T.G., V.H. Heywood, N.A. Burgus. 1964-76. Flora europea. 4 vol.
Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, England.
- Wells, H.D. 1953. Diseases of big trefoil in Georgia. Plant Dis. Rptr.
- Zachary, A.L. and H.P. Ulrich. 1965. Fragipans-what are they? Research Progr.
Rpt. 184. Purdue (Indiana) Agricultural Expt. Sta., West Lafayette.
Table 1. Big trefoil cultivars.
zNot a recognized cultivar
|Beaver ||Oregon State, USDA ||Public variety|
|Border ||Oregon-Washington ||Public varietyz|
|Columbia ||Oregon State, USDA ||Public variety|
|Grasslands Maku ||New Zealand, DSIR ||Public variety|
|Kaiser ||Purdue, USDA|| Public variety|
|Marshfield ||Washington State, Oregon State, USDA ||Public variety|
Fig. 1. Big trefoil-producing areas of the U.S.
Last update August 26, 1997