Wildlife & Nature

Bird’s foot trefoil

Bird's foot trefoil (5)

From May to September, the brilliant yellow flowers of Bird’s Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) light up the ground of meadows and heathland, coastal cliffs and sand dunes.

This isn’t a rare plant, but it’s beautiful.  Its buds are infused with bright orange, while the open flowers are pure sunshine yellow.  A member of the pea family, Bird’s Foot Trefoil gets its name from its seed pods, which are long, thin and brown, resembling birds’ feet.

BFT (5)

Bird's foot trefoil growing in the walls of Castle Sween
Bird’s foot trefoil growing in the walls of Castle Sween

‘Trefoil’ describes its upper leaves, which are in three parts, with two lower ones attached to the base of the stem.  In most cases it hugs the ground, but it can grow up to 12 inches in height if the surrounding vegetation is taller.

With over 70 common names, Bird’s Foot Trefoil seems to have been an abundant and familiar sight for many generations!  It has been called ‘Dutchman’s clogs’, ‘hen and chickens’, ‘bacon and eggs’ and ‘lady’s slippers’;   and its seed pods have given rise to alternative names such as ‘granny’s toenails‘ and ‘devil’s fingers’.

On midsummer night the flowers were traditionally woven into wreaths;  one source suggests that this was for protection, because its three-lobed leaves were reminiscent of the Holy Trinity, but such customs often go back further than the coming of Christianity.

An important source of nectar for bees, Bird’s Foot Trefoil also provides food for the caterpillars of several butterflies including the common blue, green hairstreak and dingy skipper.

Growing on a cutwater of the bridge at Inveraray, along with fairy foxgloves
Growing on a cutwater of the bridge at Inveraray, along with fairy foxgloves

Bird’s Foot Trefoil is widespread in the UK, and it is also found throughout mainland Europe, as well as Asia, Africa, and parts of the tropics.  In the US, where it is known as Birdfoot Deervetch, it was introduced as a fodder plant for farm animals.  The fresh flowers and leaves contain low doses of toxins, but these have been shown to improve digestion and stimulate respiration.  Its flowers were once used as a dye for wool and cotton fabrics.

I love seeing this pretty flower, and for me it’s associated with the wild shores of western Scotland, where the rocky outcrops run down to the sea.

On the shore of Loch Sween
On the shore of Loch Sween


Photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf


Fairy foxgloves on Isle of Lismore
Fairy foxgloves on the Isle of Lismore

More wild flowers in lovely places:

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  • Maia T.

    This plant also provides nectar for lots of adult butterflies, as I’m discovering. I arrived here to a garden and property borders planted in native wildflowers, which I’ll definitely be maintaining. I have butterflies in astonishing numbers, and they absolutely love the flowers of this plant. So do I; they’re striking in a garden dominated by whites and purples, and the salt air appears to bother them not in the slightest.

    • Jo Woolf

      That sounds like a beautiful garden, and you’re lucky to have so many butterflies! We’re noticing fewer of them this year here in our own garden, even though we have a buddleia in flower which usually attracts lots of them.

      • Maia T.

        I’m not sure if I have many or few butterflies for here on average yet; this is my first season here, so I lack anything local to compare it to. 🙂 The numbers seem extraordinary to me, especially because there’s been such a decline in Monarch butterflies in the U.S. Seeing more than three or four at once is plenty to give me pause, and I’ve seen far more than that of a couple of species. I’m learning all sorts of new ones along with new birds and dragon/damselflies, and I’m loving it.

  • blosslyn

    Thank you, I have often wondered what it was, now I know……but which one to choose 🙂 As to the butterflies, we seem to have more this year, they keep coming into the conservatory and I have help them out, we had a dragonfly this afternoon, very beautiful 🙂

    • Jo Woolf

      Glad you liked it, Lynne! I’m also glad you have lots of butterflies, and to have dragonflies too is really good. There are quite a few dragonflies on the moss (peat bog) up the hill from us, but our butterflies don’t seem so numerous – last year, the buddleia was alive with them.

      • blosslyn

        I wonder if the weather has any thing to do with it, our garden is alive at the moment, rabbits, a hedgehog and family of moorhens, Nancy our little dog thinks she is heaven, she ok with them, her best friend is a chicken. One chicken was really getting pecked by the others, so we made her a small pen and hut and she comes out every evening, and they do actually roam the garden together 🙂

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