Three-leaf clover

What an endangered plant says about the way we live in Kentucky

Nov 18, 2009 at 6:00 am
Three-leaf clover
Photo by Alan Abbott

It’s a muggy early summer morning and Tara Littlefield, a field botanist for the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, is taking me on an adventure to see one of the most endangered species in the state: the Running Buffalo Clover.

We pull up in her state-owned jeep to the entrance of the 600-acre Adair Wildlife Management Area in Boone County. After digging around in the backseat, Littlefield finds the combination to the locked gate, opens it up and drives us through. We meander down a rough, muddy road, eventually parking next to a field with chest-high grass. She grabs her GPS and a notebook and wades through the field with her arms above her head.

Along the way, she points out all the spittlebugs that have made sticky, bubbly cocoons out of, well, spit. Inside every one of these cocoons relatives of aphids are hardening their shells in preparation for a brief adult life. It’s only when Littlefield points them out that I notice there are thousands around me. I wonder what else I’ve missed in the tall grass.

Littlefield has a great job if you like spending two out of every three days driving from site to site, getting snowed and rained on, sometimes spending days away from your house wandering through the forest, all the while cataloging the slow, inexorable march of manmade mass extinctions. She’s had run-ins with irritable black bears. She almost stepped on a very large rattlesnake once. She was knee-deep in a cottonmouth-infested swamp with only a net for protection. Like many people outdoors, she deals with the dangers of hunters and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. A peer once fell off a cliff. And there was that day when she saw probably a thousand seed ticks on herself.

Unlike me, she doesn’t believe in insect repellant.

We hit a trail in the woods and follow it along a creek. After 15 or 20 minutes of pointing out to me all the native and invasive species, Littlefield checks her GPS and notebook a few times and has us double back a bit. Finally, she finds what we’re looking for: a 10-foot square patch of Running Buffalo Clover.

No, it’s not exactly a bald eagle. It has three green leaves and, this time of year, rotting white flowers. Sure, the plant doesn’t look spectacular, but its story is as distinctly American — and Kentuckian — as any species out there.


It’s assumed that the Running Buffalo Clover evolved to succeed along bison trails — hence the name, which dates back at least to the 19th century. It sets itself up on the sides of trails and sends runners, what appear to be little vines, toward the muddy center, where the buffalo had trampled on and eaten all the competition. There, if they are lucky, the runners are trampled into the ground. Then, instead of dying, they re-emerge from the ground as new plants, with new runners, so that the plant may continue to spread across the trail.

Its dependence on the bison doesn’t end there: It’s also hypothesized that the plant is well adapted to process the animal’s feces and urine. And the seeds can germinate more quickly when passed through the digestive tracts of a large mammal — like, say, a bison.

It is uncertain how widespread the plant managed to become under this system. Records from the 18th and 19th centuries refer to the clover as being tall as “a horse’s knee”; reports show the soil “covered” with clover. Clovers are all over official accounts of early settlement. Early maps referred to parts of Kentucky (then still part of Virginia) as “the land of cane and clover.”

There is some debate whether these records are discussing exclusively, or even mostly, Running Buffalo Clover. Still, at one point or another in the last 200 years, it had been observed in eight states, including Kentucky.

Now it’s down to five, and the clover is endangered in every one.

As any better high school textbook will tell you, in the 18th century, white settlers came and killed the buffalo — technically American bison, although buffalo has endured as the common term — in unheard-of numbers. The buffalo trails, once common in the area, were turned into farms and roads (and the names of bourbon distilleries). Like many plants and animals, the clover lost most of its habitat during a massive ecological disruption attributable to European settlement.

Simon Girty, the famous (or infamous) Loyalist during the Revolutionary War, attempted to gain Native American support for an attack on Boone and other Kentucky settlers with the following speech:

“Brothers, the (white people) have overrun your country, and usurped your hunting grounds. They have destroyed the cane — trodden down the clover — killed the deer and buffaloes, the bear and raccoon. They are building cabins and making roads on the ground of the Indian camp and warpath. The beaver has been chased from his dam and forced to leave the country … Unless you rise in the majesty of your might and exterminate the whole race, you may bid adieu to the hunting ground of your fathers — to the delicious flesh of the animals with which it once abounded, and to the skins with which you were once enabled to purchase your clothing and your rum.”

Obviously, Girty failed. And the landscape in which the Running Buffalo Clover flourished for thousands of years would look utterly foreign to the average Kentuckian today.

Somehow, and it is not very well understood how, the plant was able to hang on. In the Adair Wildlife Management Area, the clover lives on a trail used by deer and, to a lesser degree, people. But it’s also popped up in less likely places, farmlands and fields, frequently miles and miles away from the nearest patch. Maybe it has seeds that have been in the ground for 100 years. Maybe birds or deer take them. Maybe the clover is more adaptive than it appears at first glance.

Regardless of how, it has survived the ecological upheaval of the last 200 years. Whether it can make it another 20 depends on people like Littlefield, and a patchwork of laws and government agencies that began to emerge in the 1970s.


Almost 200 years after Girty made that speech, events finally took a turn for the better. The Federal Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, and with President Richard Nixon’s support. It was part of America’s first real wave of green awareness, coming on the heels of Rachel Carson’s anti-DDT book “Silent Spring,” and the anti-nuclear movement. And there was that time the Cuyahoga River caught fire outside of Cleveland, puzzling a lot of people who otherwise believed water didn’t burn.

In 1976, the Kentucky General Assembly more or less seconded the Endangered Species Act’s goals when it declared that “certain areas of unusual natural significance be set aside and preserved for the benefit of present and future generations. Such unique areas are valuable to the vital human dependence upon fresh air, clean water and unspoiled natural areas.”

International, federal, state and local bodies all drew up plans to mitigate the great species die-off of the 20th century. In general, their solutions entailed setting aside important habitats, limiting hunting and monitoring pollution.

But getting something on that list takes public pressure. People in the know have suspected that Kentucky Glade Cress, which exists only in Jefferson and Bullitt counties, is threatened by habitat loss. But it wasn’t until November of this year that the Department of Fish and Wildlife was able to consider it for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act. For final approval, money is needed to complete the study: It’s not enough for everybody to know you’re endangered. It has to be proven. This has been a vicious catch-22 for many species that disappear before studies are ever completed.

There were a few high-profile successes: the bald eagle, the spotted owl, even the buffalo. These are what biologists call “charismatic megafauna,” i.e. large animals that people like looking at. However, most endangered species aren’t charismatic megafauna. They’re species like insects, salamanders, mussels, herbs and shrubs. They’re species that most people don’t notice, much less protect.

In other words, if you’re big and hairy, you have a chance. But heaven help you if you’re slimy, small or leafy.

For years, people assumed that what limited conservation efforts existed for plants were too late for the Running Buffalo Clover. Between the 1940s and 1983, it hadn’t been seen anywhere in the wild. Marc Evans, who was at the time a field botanist for the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, rediscovered it in Kentucky in 1987.

Evans conveyed to me the story about how on that day, he looked down at a plant and nonchalantly said to himself, “Hmm, this is a clover I haven’t seen before.” He didn’t know it was a holy grail for Kentucky plant biodiversity.

Thus, the Running Buffalo Clover was given a second lease on life. And this time it had some friends, just not very many.


For the nine federally listed plants in the 40,000 square miles that compose the Commonwealth of Kentucky, there are a grand total of two people in the field documenting their status. Tara Littlefield is one of them. Her boss, Deborah White, is the other.

Like many bureaucracies, especially under-funded ones, the responsibilities of the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission are varied. There is the Natural Heritage Program, which monitors biodiversity in Kentucky. That program is what brought Littlefield and me to the Adair Wildlife Management Area.

The other major sphere of work is the Nature Preserves Program. If you own some land that has an endangered species on it, you might be eligible for an easement, which reduces the taxes you pay on the land in return for certain guarantees of responsible land use. The Preserves Commission monitors this process. Others might sell or give their land to the state to be turned into a nature preserve. Burdened by limited resources, the commission tends to be picky when acquiring land: usually, there needs to be a unique habitat for a federally listed plant or animal. Consequently, White and Littlefield spend a lot of time collecting data on those species. Sometimes, those species live on state- or federally owned land, which makes the process easier. But this is the exception. A lot of time needs to be spent looking at maps, predicting likely habitats and asking landowners to voluntarily provide access for monitoring of the species.

Here, White and Littlefield come across a lot of misconceptions. People think plants are entitled to the same protections as animals: not true. While you couldn’t, say, shoot a California Condor if it lands in your backyard, you could burn a patch of Kentucky Glade Cress just for the hell of it. If not on government land, plants need to rely solely on the kindness of strangers.

Why the law is written like this, given the interdependence of animals and plants, is baffling.

“It is sometimes hard to convince people that the conservation of plants is just as important as the conservation of animals,” Littlefield explains. “It sometimes takes a charismatic species to catch the public’s eye and get them interested in conservation, and large animals tend to do a better job at that. Many of the intricate relationships between plants, animals, insects, etc., are not known, so we just don’t know how the loss of plants can affect other groups of organisms.”

People also tend to conflate the Preserves Commission with other governmental organizations. Frequently, it takes a long time to build the trust necessary to get access to the land to check on the populations every year or two. People confuse them with Fish and Wildlife Services, who have different responsibilities and receive much animosity through their regulation of hunting and fishing, or any number of other government entities that many people are worried about traipsing on their land. They don’t realize that Littlefield is there only for monitoring and, if the landowner is willing, management education. But she doesn’t have a gun and she can’t arrest anybody.

There are other biologists at the Preserves Commission, people who monitor species like the Indiana Bat, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker or the Catspaw freshwater mussel. Sadly, they find themselves in much the same position that Littlefield does.

The commission and other governmental and nonprofit organizations have projects for landowners looking to maintain their property in a responsible way. And if you have an endangered or threatened species on your property, it’s important to contact them. Despite initial misgivings, many landowners come around. Frequently, the existence of something as fragile and important as an endangered plant on their land can inspire landowners toward conservation.

“When you show somebody what he’s got,” Littlefield says, “they learn to appreciate it.”

Later that same day, Littlefield and I go to another site in Boone County. This one follows a trail leading from the historic Dinsmore Homestead, which dates to the early19th century — it seems appropriate that Running Buffalo Clover can be found here. It should be noted that this is where Marc Evans rediscovered the Running Buffalo Clover back in 1987.

As I kneel over to take some pictures, Littlefield seems upset. She goes to another section of the trail, documents the density of the plants and comes back.

She points out the Japanese Stiltgrass all along the trail. Nobody knows for sure how it arrived in the U.S. — some hypothesize it came as packing material for oriental porcelain in the early 20th century — but here, removed from its traditional competition, it has been too successful. Like kudzu or garlic mustard, it is able to out-compete native species, in turn decreasing the overall biodiversity in our remaining wild pockets.

Here, it’s choking out the patches of Running Buffalo Clover that the commission has been monitoring for years.

“If we don’t do something, (the Running Buffalo Clover) will be gone from this site in a few years,” Littlefield says. She goes on to explain that the commission doesn’t have the budget or manpower to send people out here to clear out invasive species from now until the end of time.

People are only now realizing that protecting endangered species might be more difficult than setting aside preserves. Frequently, saving the environment does start in your backyard. Over the last few years, people have become more aware of the importance of eschewing certain plants, and instead using native, regional, or at least well-understood plants on their property in order to maintain biodiversity.

This year, Gov. Steve Beshear proclaimed September “Invasive Plant Awareness Month.” He issued a proclamation stating that invasive plants are a “primary reason for the endangerment of rare species and the alteration of natural ecosystem functions that are detrimental to wildlife.” There was a ceremony in Frankfort that included a who’s who of Kentucky’s botanical community, from forestry academics to environmental activists and the Kentucky Garden Club.

Sarah Hall, co-investigator for plant biodiversity at Kentucky State University and a board member of the Kentucky Native Plant Society, points out that there are wonderful volunteer opportunities for people looking to stop the spread of habitat loss. On the most basic level, Kentucky needs people to go out and pull weeds.

“It’s not glamorous work,” Hall concedes, “but it’s definitely important.”

Still, it might be too late to put the genie back in the bottle. Drive through parts of America and see how successful kudzu management has been: It controls tens of millions of acres and has been nicknamed “the vine that ate the South.”

And then there’s climate change. How will Kentucky’s native plants survive new, less predictable weather patterns? Wetter springs? Drier summers? There are people studying these questions, but of course, nobody knows for sure.

Littlefield admits that it’s hard to remain optimistic about the future of the plants she monitors, especially in the spring, when invasive plants are at their height. “There’s so little help,” she laments, “and the problem is so huge.”

But it is doable. Take Eggert’s Sunflower. A medium-sized flower with eight bright yellow pedals that shoot out like ribbons, it’s native only to Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. In 2005, it was taken off the Endangered Species list, downgraded only to “threatened.” Littlefield’s organization helped save the plant, but so did dozens of others, including the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and Arnold Air Force Base in Tennessee.

In other words, we are not yet at a point beyond hope.

The Running Buffalo Clover was here when Daniel Boone arrived. It survived the end of the buffalo in Kentucky. It’s held on as the landscape of the Southeast has been transformed by farming, roads and introduced plants.Whether it will survive in the wild another 20 years remains to be seen. 

Five leafy enemies

Invasive species pose a major problem for native plants like Running Buffalo Clover. Here are five that are particularly offensive.

Garlic Mustard:

Introduced into American gardens from Europe in the 19th century as a culinary herb. Due to lack of natural insect predators and fungi, it’s been able to establish itself very well here. Because it does so well in low-light forest settings, it’s good at killing off native wildflowers like the trillium. It has become a problem in some 20 states.

Multiflora Rose:

A large, ornamental shrub that was used in gardens as well as a “natural fence” due to its size and density. It’s pretty and smells nice, but don’t let that fool you: It’s a real bastard.

Japanese Stiltgrass:

Obviously of Asian origin, hence the name, it does very well in the sorts of places that Running Buffalo Clover depends upon.


Japanese Knotweed:

It’s so successful in North America, when this establishes itself, it can create a 10-foot-tall wall of weeds 50 feet wide. Originally used ornamentally and for erosion control, now it’s just a pest.


Japanese Honeysuckle:

Not to pick on the Japanese, it’s just that Asian plants have had a particularly easy time here. This is an evergreen vine with small, white flowers and a kudzu-like ability to spread.


Contacts for Kentucky’s plant biodiversity

Kentucky Nature Preserves Commission: A good resource for landowners, activists and volunteers eager to protect our biodiversity. (


Kentucky Native Plant Society: Learn to appreciate what’s distinctly ours, and then how to fight for it. (


Kentucky Exotic Pest Plant Council: They specialize in identifying, educating and eradicating invasive plants. (


Garden Club of Kentucky: Part of a new wave of gardeners who see themselves in relation to the ecosystem beyond their backyard. Also one of the main proponents of “Invasive Species Awareness Month” in Kentucky. (


E-mail Gov. Beshear and thank him for supporting native plants, and ask him to do more. Also, let Rep. Yarmuth and Sens. McConnell and Bunning know that biodiversity is a priority.