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Big Trefoil Information

by Jonathan Christie

updated 2017
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Big trefoil (Lotus uliginosus, also known as L. pedunculatus, L. major, or bigleaf trefoil) is an excellent legume for poorer soils. It thrives in soils that are high in acidity, high in aluminum content, or are waterlogged. Big trefoil is commonly used for hay, forage, conservation plantings, or wildlife habitat. Less commonly, it may also be used for honey production and land reclamation.


Growing conditions:

Big trefoil can withstand (and thrive) on soils that:

Here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, much of our soil is heavy clay with high aluminum which creates a toxicity for many crop plants. This coupled with a high rain fall creates an acidic, high aluminum, and wet clay soil--a perfect location for growing this crop.


 Nutritive Value in Forage:

Planting, Seeding, Pasture Management:

Big trefoil may be seeded using traditional crop methods. Broadcasting or aerial overseeding are effective, especially in areas where conventional tillage would be difficult or impossible (such as in a forestland or area for wildlife).


Standard seeding is in the Fall or Spring. Seeding rates are commonly stated as 2-5 pounds per acre, but I recommend 10 pounds per acre of coated seed.

Big trefoil is often planted with companion grasses when it is used for pasture or forage. Rates are usually in the ratio of 1:2, meaning 1 pound of trefoil for every two pounds of companion. For example, 10 lbs. trefoil would mix with 20 lbs. grass in the mix.

Companion crops can vary. I’ve had experience with annual ryegrass, bentgrass, clover, and oats. Literature records other crops such as rye, orchardgrass, and vetch. In general, trefoil will do better and the companion crop worse in the wetter sites with the opposite occuring in drier sites.

Pasture management is similiar for big trefoil as for other legumes such as clovers or alfalfa. Avoid overgrazing in the late fall. Use of temporary electric fencing and intensive grazing works well to ensure animals eat grasses and not just the trefoil, their preferred forage when given a choice.

Anti-Helminthic Properties:

Grazing on crops with condensed tannins (like Lotus) seem to reduce worm egg counts in growing lambs. Use of Lotus in pasture can be advantageous to parasite control and a boon to organic sheep production.

If you’re raising livestock organically or trying to reduce inputs, grazing trefoil can help you reduce worm infestation and the need for chemical dewormers.

Wildlife Use:

Big trefoil is a known attractant for elk and deer. Until recently, this crop was listed as a seed for elk habitat in Oregon and Washington. Because it is a “non-native plant,” big trefoil is no longer listed in this way. However, it is still a top grazing plant for the deer in my area; they find my fields quite tasty.

Big Trefoil versus Birdsfoot Trefoil:

Big trefoil (Lotus uliginosus) is closely related to birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), but is less well known. Both are trefoils and share the same general plant morphology and growth patterns. Both are non-bloating legumes and can be used in similar ways. Birdsfoot is the more “well known” trefoil in the U.S. and many people when talking of trefoil don’t know there’s more than one species or confuse the two together.

The table below details the differences between these species:


Big Trefoil

Birdsfoot Trefoil


1,075,000 per pound (average); green

500,000 per pound; brown


Prostrate growth with rhizomes and stolons

May be prostrate, some stolons

Aluminum Tolerance

Very high (>3umols)

Lower (<7 umols)

Acidity Tolerance



Manganese Tolerance

up to 0.76g/kg DM

<0.50g/kg DM

Soil Water Tolerance

Constant Moisture (Waterlogged)

Moist, but not constant


Fragipan (high clay, low pH)

Moderate Clay

Seeding Rates

Low (5 pounds and up)

Low but usually double big trefoil’s rate


The main difference between these two plants is the growing conditions. Big trefoil can grow in standing water, high acid soils, or soils with a high aluminum content. Birdsfoot trefoil grows better in less extreme soils.

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