Bob Henke column: A discussion about honey and clover | outdoors

I just had a lengthy argument with a woman who I had just met. I wish this was a unique experience but there have been other first-time meetings that went horribly awry. I have made such profound first impressions that one lady threw a cantaloupe at me in a crowded supermarket, another tried to run over me in a Walgreen’s parking lot and one called the Governor’s office from a rest stop pay phone trying to have me tossed out of her state and escorted to the border. I am pleased to report none of these actions were successful, and in at least one of these situations, a lasting friendship developed.

I can trace the problem to a single condition: in each case, I was right and too bull-headed to just let them go on believing something silly. Last night’s dispute was a similar situation and I am quite sure, as usual, nothing I said altered her belief de ella one iota.

The topic was honey, a subject on which I claim some knowledge and expertise.

It all began innocently enough. She had some of our honey at a friend’s house, she liked it a lot and wanted some for herself. Since we have a number of different types of honey, I asked if she knew what kind of it was. At this point, I anticipated the conversation would turn to taste, color, thickness and other elements that would enable me to identify which variety of honey she had liked so well.

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She answered that it was “clover honey.” I said it was definitely not. She interrupted to say she had always had clover honey and certainly knew it when she tasted it. I said there was virtually no actual clover honey made in North America. She said she bought it all the time in the supermarket and even the label had a honey bee on a big pink clover flower.

This always sort of sets me off. In the pre-alfalfa days, many farms grew a forage crop called sweet clover. It was a difficult crop because if not harvested at just the right time and handled exactly correctly, it could become toxic to horses and cattle. It did, however, make beautiful honey. In a few areas where it has become invasive, as well as in Europe where they still grow it, you can still find clover honey. Nowadays, any clover grown in significant quantity is one of the varieties of red clover.

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These make the big puffy pink blossoms often seen on honey labels, however, the flower cones are too deep for a honeybee to reach any nectar. Red clover is pollinated predominantly by bumblebee species. Large commercial honey producers mix all their honey together. If the result is light colored, they label it “wildflower” and if darker, it becomes “clover.” Each plant makes a different type of honey and I try to keep all my various varieties separate — but none of them are made from clover.

That said, there is a species of clover that honeybees do like and visit often. This is the white clover we often find in our lawns. It traditionally was, and sometimes still is, planted as a pasture plant. It does not grow tall enough to make a worthwhile crop. White clover is not a native species. It originated in Europe and most particularly in the British Isles. It came to North America with the colonists, as did the honeybee. It is not a great nectar source; the bees often work it more strongly for the pollen, but it is extremely drought tolerant and will give the bees something when no other plants are producing nectar.

White clover is a perennial that can spread both by sprouting from the root system as well as by seeds. The pink-tinged, white flowers can appear at any point in the growing season, especially after the plant has been pruned — which can be done by your lawn mower, a grazing rabbit, or a semi-crazed human forager. Clovers in general and white clover in particular are wonderful hosts to nitrogen-fixing bacteria and are often planted as cover crops to increase the fertility of the soil. White clover is famous for its trifoliolate leaf pattern, mostly because when this messes up a four-leaf clover is produced and these are reputed to be a very lucky talisman.

You might be surprised to find the unassuming little clover plants in your lawn are the subject of a great deal of evolutionary research as well as studies of how plants communicate with each other. Although most books on foraging wild plants list white clover as completely edible from stem to blossom, the plant holds some surprises for those who would eat it. Researchers studying plant communication have used clover as a model for the studies that have demonstrated not only is there communication, it is far stronger and more effective among plants that are closely related.

White clover is no exception. When something damages a plant, whether it is a rabbit nibbling or a scrawny human forager, the injured plant sends out a warning pheromone both through its root system and by pheromones spread in the air. The response of the injured plant as well as any of those that receive the signal is to produce release hydrogen cyanide, a bitter tasting and, in sufficient quantity, deadly, chemical. This minimizes damage to the plant and its kin in the area.

The ability to produce toxins has brought clover to center stage in another terrific research project. This week’s Science carries an article authored by more than 350 biologists, which reports findings on the ability of white clover to adapt to urban environments. They genetically examined white clover plants from 160 urban centers around the world, as well as the increasingly rural areas as they moved outward from the centers. This explains the need for 300-plus researchers to be involved.

The study focused on the nature and amount of cyanide production by the plants. The first finding was not too surprising. The farther from the center of the urban population one went, the stronger the plant’s production of cyanide. This seems a response increasing amount and variety of predation. Plants that produced little toxin were more apt to be terminally browsed than one that became bitter-tasting after a few mouthfuls were taken. This had been noted previously but attributed to the fact that urban areas generate their own climates, making them warmer than surrounding countryside.

Making the precursors to cyanide require cold temperatures so plants in softer environments might be less likely to accumulate it in their leaves. The latest study, done as part of a bigger project called the Global Urban Evolution Project, went beyond simply sampling cyanide levels. They actually did DNA work and determined there had been an actual evolutionary genetic change.

The second and unexpected result was that the clover showed almost identical evolutionary genetic change across the whole range of study areas. Parallel evolution has generally been thought of as rare and almost accidental. This study shows that given similar factors driving it, similar challenges can yield similar adaptations even in very separated populations.

But wherever they are, they do not make a whole lot of honey. …

Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post Star.

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