Chances are you've never heard of running buffalo clover.
It's a rare plant native to the Bluegrass and was thought to be extinct throughout much of the 20th century. When remnant patches were rediscovered in Kentucky and five nearby states, it was reclassified and added to the national list of endangered and threatened wildlife and plants.
An initial collection of this clover was secured by University of Kentucky agronomy professor Norman Taylor, whose life work of collecting more than 200 varieties of clover from around the world resulted in the repository of the clover division of the National Plant Germplasm System being housed in his College of Agriculture greenhouses until after his death in 2010.
More recently, thanks to the work of two researchers at Eastern Kentucky University, this little bellwether holds the promise of an upswing of local interest and engagement in ecological restoration and conservation.
David Brown, an assistant professor of biology, and Will Overbeck, a graduate student active in regional ecological restorations, have been propagating and planting running buffalo clover seedlings in experimental plots at Taylor Fork Ecological Area, a 60-acre site adjacent to EKU's campus in Richmond.
"Running buffalo clover was historically widespread and an abundant plant in parts of the Bluegrass region associated with buffalo trails," Brown says.
In an interesting case of symbiosis, the plant — which spreads by sending out ground- level stolons, or "runners," as well as seeds — is thought to have relied on the buffalo to trample and disturb the ground, opening pathways for it to grow.
But when European settlers arrived in the late 1700s, the landscape changed and the buffalo were displaced. Without the running herds, the clover's habitat was lost.
Much like the three-leaf European white clover that blooms in residential lawns from April through June, running buffalo clover has a ball-shaped mop-head comprised of many tiny white tubular florets. One way to identify running buffalo clover is by looking at the stalks, which have a pair of leaflets on the stem just below the flower. Also, its leaves are completely green, whereas other clovers have lighter, chevron-shaped marks on the leaflets.
"Several years ago, in 2009 and 2010, a group of students interested in wildlife management began talking with EKU administrators about designating an area close to campus — a setting with fields, woods and pasture — where they'd have the opportunity for direct, hands-on experience," Brown says.
The result was Taylor Fork Ecological Area, named for Hancock Taylor, said to be the first European surveyor to die in Kentucky; his 1774 grave site is on the property.
The land, which had been leased for cattle grazing and still is surrounded by a pastoral farm setting, is open to the public and is just a short hike from the main campus. Projects are student-driven: Volunteers organize workdays to clear out invasive species such as bush honeysuckle; participate in designing research plans, planting and maintenance; and raise money to support activities.
Brown also hopes to include local middle school students in the cultivation of the running buffalo clover, as a way get children involved in environmental biology.
Details about how the clover can be best cultivated are being studied at Taylor Fork, including soil, light, moisture and nutrient requirements, alongside the goal of simply building a stable supply of this endangered plant.
Brown says, "It's a neat little component" in the ecological studies done there, which also include creating shallow upland wetlands, which attract aquatic insects and birds; and stream bank stabilization using, among other native plants, giant cane, which also was a feature of Bluegrass land before European settlement."
You'll probably not be able to cultivate running buffalo clover in your yard, as it's an endangered plant with special habitat needs.
But the next time you're trampling the grounds at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate on Richmond Road, keep your eyes open: You just might spot some running buffalo clover there.
Susan Smith-Durisek is a master gardener and writer from Lexington. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog: gardening.bloginky.com.