Bird’s-Foot Trefoil

Lotus corniculatus

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Photo of bird's-foot trefoil, close-up of flower cluster.
The bright yellow flowers of bird's-foot trefoil grow in umbels, at the stalk tips, and have the typical configuration of pea flowers.
Family

Fabaceae (beans, peas)

Description

Many-branched perennial; the branches lie on the ground but their ends ascend. Flowers in umbels, terminal, with the typical configuration of pea flowers, bright golden yellow. Blooms May–September. Leaves compound, with 3 leaflets (a terminal and 2 opposite) some distance below. Two basal leaves are actually stipules, not technically part of the compound leaf, but added to the true leaflets it looks like there are 5 total leaflets. All are variably oblong. Fruits are beaked, slender, upright pods bearing 5-14 seeds.

Size

Stem length: 6-24 inches.

Habitat and conservation

Fields, roadsides, waste places, and other disturbed areas. A native of Europe, it was spread widely in our state by the Missouri Department of Transportation to prevent erosion at highway construction sites. This species has a worldwide distribution; it is planted widely as a low-growing groundcover.

image of Bird's Foot Trefoil Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Scattered statewide, especially in the northern part of the state.

Human connections

Worldwide and in Missouri, this plant is economically important as a forage and cover crop and for soil stabilization. As a legume, it introduces nitrogen into the soil, so farmers plant it to improve soil fertility.

Ecosystem connections

Many nonnative plants have been introduced to our country in efforts to prevent erosion. Some species become invasive nightmares, infesting and devastating natural ecosystems. Others, like this plant, do not invade native landscapes so readily.