CPC National Collection Plant Profile

Trifolium stoloniferum

Casey Galvin

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CPC National Collection Plant Profile

Trifolium stoloniferum

Common Name: 
running buffalo clover
Muhl. ex Eat.
Growth Habit: 
CPC Number: 


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Trifolium stoloniferumenlarge
Photographer: Casey Galvin

Trifolium stoloniferumenlarge
Photographer: Casey Galvin

Trifolium stoloniferum is Fully Sponsored
Primary custodian for this plant in the CPC National Collection of Endangered Plants is: 
Kimberlie McCue, Ph.D. contributed to this Plant Profile.

Trifolium stoloniferum

From 1940 until 1985, running buffalo clover was thought to be extinct. Then two populations were rediscovered in West Virginia. Since that initial rediscovery, a number of populations have been found in five of the eight states of this species' original distribution.

A story of the re-discovery of this plant in the state of Missouri is particularly interesting. In 1989, this species was still considered extirpated from the state of Missouri: the plant could not be found at any of its historical locations. The Missouri Department of Conservation began to consider re-introduction of the species to some of the historical locations.

In 1990, a botanist working for the Missouri Department of Conservation had a load of topsoil delivered to his house to use for gardening. Before he was able to spread the soil, seeds in the topsoil began to germinate, and he allowed them to grow into identifiable plants. To his, and everyone's, amazement, several plants of running buffalo clover appeared there. The source area of that topsoil delivery was searched, but no plants were found. However, these newly discovered plants were propagated and used in Missouri re-introduction efforts.
In 1994, a naturally-occurring population of this species was discovered on private land in SE Missouri. This was the first natural site of the population known to exist in the state since 1907, except for the plants found in the 1990 load of topsoil. Genetic testing showed that plants from the 1994-discovered site and plants from the 1990 load of topsoil were genetically similar to each other, as well as genetically distinct from plants in other states. This was a great discovery and re-introductions continue in that state, using plants from Missouri stock.

This clover is similar to other native and introduced clovers in the Midwest. It does have distinguishing characteristics, though, not the least of which give the plant both its scientific and common name. The scientific name Trifolium (three leaves) stoloniferum (having stolons) is very descriptive in and of itself. The common name of RUNNING BUFFALO CLOVER came from the fact that stolons, or RUNNERS, extend from the base of this plant's stems. These runners are able to root and expand the size of an originally small clump of clover into one or more larger ones. This plant is thought to have been more widespread before the loss of bison from its habitat. Bison are thought to have played a role in maintaining the open habitat that this species requires for survival.

Flowers appear on a stem with a pair of leaflets (unique to this species), and are white tinged with purple. These flowers appear from May through July. The three leaflets of the clover lack the arrow-shaped "watermarks" that are typical of other clovers. (West Virginia Department of Natural Resources 1998)

Distribution & Occurrence

State Range
West Virginia
State Range of  Trifolium stoloniferum
  Partly sunny locations with moist, fertile soils that have been exposed to long-term moderate disturbance patterns (including mowing, trampling, and grazing). This plant is often found in the ecotone between open forest and prairie.

  This species has been recorded in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Arkansas. As of 2002, this species has not been relocated in Illinois, Kansas and Arkansas. (West Virginia Department of Natural Resources 1998). At the time of listing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considered the Arkansas record to be based upon a human introduction, and so they did not consider it. (USFWS 1987)

Number Left
  Apparently extirpated from AR, IL, KS.
Extant populations number 2 in Indiana, 23 in Kentucky, 3 in Missouri, 12 in Ohio, and 25 in West Virginia. (all numbers are estimates and subject to change). (USFWS 1989)


Global Rank:  
Guide to Global Ranks
Federal Status:  
Guide to Federal Status
Recovery Plan:  

State/Area Protection
  State/Area Rank Status Date  
  Arkansas SH 7/1/1997  
  Illinois SH  
  Indiana SE 1/11/2000  
  Kansas SH  
  Kentucky T 1/1/2000  
  Missouri S1 E 7/16/2001  
  Ohio S1 E 6/13/1998  
  West Virginia S2 6/1/2000  

Conservation, Ecology & Research

Ecological Relationships
  Trifolium stoloniferum is very palatable, and often a favorite of herbivores. It is believed that prior to European settlement, running buffalo clover was widespread and at least partially dependent on bison for seed scarification and dispersal. This species was most likely also dependent on bison and Native American trails to create the moderate disturbance (in the form of grazing, trampling, or burning) that it needs to thrive.

This is the only clover to date that has been found to have no rhizobial association. Rhizobium nodulate the roots of plants, increasing nitrogen availability to the plant. It is unknown whether a suitable rhizobial associate exists and is no longer able to infect running buffalo clover, or if the rhizobial associate is extinct due to either the decline of the clover or from competition with rhizobia that was introduced with exotic clovers.

  Habitat loss
Population isolation
Excessive grazing
Competition from non-native plants
Loss of pollinators
Susceptibility to new viruses
Small population size may lead to inbreeding depression
(USFWS 1989)

Current Research Summary
  Crawford et al. (1998) used Random Amplified Polymorphic DNA (RAPD) as markers to assess genetic variation within and among populations of Trifolium stoloniferum throughout its geographic range. The results of this study support past DNA work on the species using allozyme analysis, showing relatively low levels of diversity within populations as well as in the species as a whole. However, variation was detected in all populations, and this study showed that even the smallest population has a high proportion of plants with unique and different genetic make-ups. This helps to make the case that even the smallest populations are important and should be the focus of conservation work. This is significant to the conservation of the species because as it lessens concerns stated in the recovery plan that small populations may be genetically deficient.
Campbell et al. (1988) recount historical sightings of this species, and outlines protocols for propagation of this species. NatureServe (2001) also discusses more extensive work being done on the propagation of the species.
NatureServe and the Campbell paper also hypothesize possible explanations for the apparent drastic decline of running buffalo clover early in the 20th century.
As discussed in the life history section of the recovery plan for this species, some research has been done on pathogens that attack this and other clover species, as well as potential treatments for these various pathogens. This section of the recovery plan also discusses the unusual lack of a rhizobial association for this species (see the Ecological Relationship section for more information on this).

Current Management Summary
  In the recovery plan for this species, criteria for delisting from endangered to threatened included the discovery or establishment of 30 secure, self-sustaining populations. When this species was listed in 1987, only one population, comprised of four individual plants, was known (USFWS 1987). Since then, intensive searches have been conducted for remnant populations of this species, with successful searches in all but three states.
Material from wild populations has been cultivated to ensure that the genetic material represented by the species isn't lost. Reintroduction efforts using material that is representative of the reintroduction site are being carried out at historic locations of the species in many states.
A 1998 report issued by then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt said many species were being considered for downlisting, and Trifolium stoloniferum was among those species. The reasons cited for downlisting by the Fish and Wildlife Service were that at the time of listing the population and distribution of this plant were underestimated, and that many of the recovery goals had been met.
Seeds from wild populations have been germinated & placed into cultivation, and the US Department of Agriculture is conducting horticultural studies on Trifolium stoloniferum because of its potential economic value (USFWS Species Account 1990).
The Missouri Department of Conservation has created a document that outlines Best Management Practices for this plant. Its purpose is to provide guidance to groups and individuals that want to protect this plant. This document outlines management activities that maintain open woodland habitat in the areas of Running Buffalo Clover. This includes allowing disturbances such as prescribed fire and grazing to continue in order to maintain optimal habitat for the species. (Missouri Department of Conservation 2000)

Research Management Needs
  Determine appropriate mowing regimes that enhance flower/seed production while reducing competition.
Assess potential for using grazing and/or fire as a tool to imitate presettlement disturbance conditions.
Determine if the species had a rhizobial association in the past (examine old herbarium specimens for nitrogen-fixing nodules), and if the current lack of a rhizobial association has an effect on the long-term viability of the species.

Ex Situ Needs
  Continue to conserve known genotypes through seed storage, maintain existing cultivated lines of plants from wild populations


Books (Single Authors)

2000. Missouri Plants of Conservation Concern. Jefferson City, MO: Conservation Commission of Missouri--Missouri Department of Conservation.

Books (Sections)

Pavlovic, N.B. 1994. Disturbance-dependent persistence of rare plants: anthropogenic impacts and restoration implications. In: Bowles, M.L.; Whelan, C., editors. Recovery and Restoration of Endangered Species. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. p 159-193.

Conference Proceedings

Baskin, J.M.; Baskin, C.C.; Jones, R.L. The Vegetation and Flora of Kentucky. A Symposium Sponsored by the Kentucky Academy of Science; November 22, 1986; Lexington, Kentucky. 1987. Kentucky Native Plant Society, Department of Biological Sciences, Eastern Kentucky University.

Electronic Sources

(2002). Best Management Practices for Running Buffalo Clover. Missouri Department of Conservation. http://www.conservation.state.mo.us/nathis/pdfs/clover.pdf. Accessed: 2002.

OHDNR. (2001). Rare Native Ohio Plants: 2000-2001 Status List and Profiles. Ohio Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. http://www.dnr.state.oh.us/dnap/heritage/Rare_Species2000.htm. Accessed: 2002.

USFWS. (1990). Endangered and Threatened Species Accounts. [Web page] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Endangered Species. http://ecos.fws.gov/servlet/TESSSpeciesQuery. Accessed: 2002.

USGS. (2002). Status of Listed Species and Recovery Plan Development. [Web site] USGS: Norther Prairie Wildlife Research Center. http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/distr/others/recoprog/plant.htm. Accessed: 2002.

WVDNR. (1998). Endangered Species Profiles. West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. http://www.dnr.state.wv.us/wvwildlife/endangered.htm. Accessed: 2002.

Journal Articles

Allen, W.H. 1995. The Reintroduction Myth: Trying to save endangered plants by transplanting them fails as often as it succeeds. American Horticulturist. 33-37.

Brooks, R.E. 1983. Neotypiification of Trifolium-stoloniferum fabaceae. Taxon. 32, 3: 454-455.

Brooks, R.E. 1983. Trifolium stoloniferum, running buffalo clover: Description, distribution and current status. Rhodora. 85: 343-354.

Campbell, J.N.; Evans, M.; Medley, M.E. 1988. Buffalo Clovers in Kentucky (Trifolium stoloniferum) historical records, presettlement environment, rediscovery, endangered status, cultivation and chromosome number. Rhodora. 90: 399-418.

Collins, J.L.; Wieboldt, T.F. 1992. Trifolium calcaricum, new species (Fabaceae), a new clover from limestone barrens of eastern United States. Castanea. 57, 4: 282-286.

Crawford, D.J.; Esselman, E.J.; Windus, J.L.; Pabin, C.S. 1998. Genetic variation in running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum: Fabaceae) using random amplified DNA markers (RAPDs). Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden. 85: 81-89.

Cusick, A.W. 1989. Trifolium stoloniferum (Fabaceae) in Ohio: history, habitats, decline and rediscovery. Sida. 13, 4: 467.

Ford, W.M.; Madarish, D.; Schuler, T.M.; Castleberry, S.B. 2003. Influence of white-tailed deer digestion on running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum: Fabaceae muhl. ex A. Eaton) germination. American Midland Naturalist. 149: 425-428.

Hickey, J.R.; Vincent, M.A. 1991. Genetic Variation in Running Buffalo Clover (Trifolium stoloniferum, Fabaceae). Conservation Biology. 5, 3: 309.

Homoya, M.A.; Aldrich, J.R.; Jacquart, E.M. 1989. The rediscovery of the globally endangered clover, Trifolium stoloniferum, in Indiana. Rhodora. 91: 207-212.

Madarish, D.; Schuler, T.M. 2002. Effects of forest management practices on the federally endangered running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum Muhl. ex. A. Eaton). Natural Areas Journal. 22: 120-128.

Morris, D. R.; Baligar, V.C.; Schuler, T. M.; Harmon, P. J. 2002. Biological nitrogen fixation and habitat of running buffalo clover. Journal of Plant Nutrition. 25: 735-746.

Morse, L.E. 1988. Rare Plant Protection, Conservancy Style. On the Fringe; Journal of the Ohio Native Plant Society. 6, 4: 5-10.

Quesenberry, K.H.; Call, N.M.; Moon, D.E.; Dunn, R.A. 1997. Response of native eastern North American Trifolium spp. to root-knot nematodes. Crop Science. 37, 1: 27-274.

Schemske, D.W.; Husband, B.C.; Ruckelshaus, M.H.; Goodwillie, C.; Parker, I.M.; Bishop, J.G. 1994. Evaluating approaches to the conservation of rare and endangered plants. Ecology. 75, 3: 584-606.

Sehgal, O.P.; Payne, L. 1995. Viruses affecting Running Buffalo Clover, Trifolium stoloniferum. Plant Disease. 79: 320.

Singha, S.; Baker, B.S.; Bhatia, S.K. 1988. Tissue culture propagation of the running buffalo clover Trifolium stoloniferum. Plant Cell Tissue and Organ Culture. 15: 79-84.

Smith, T.E. 1996. Re-introduction of running buffalo clover in Missouri, USA. Re-Introduction News. 12

Taylor, N.L.; Gillett, J.M.; Campbell, J.N. 1994. Crossing and morphological relationships among native clovers of Eastern North America. Crop Science. 34: 1097-1100.

USFWS. 1986. Three Plant Taxa Proposed for Protection. Endangered Species Technical Bulletin. 11, 4: 3-4.

USFWS. 1987. Determination of Endangered Status for Trifolium stoloniferum (Running Buffalo Clover). Federal Register. 52, 108: 21478-21481.

USFWS. 1987. Twelve Listings. Endangered Species Technical Bulletin. 12, 7: 1, 7-8.

USFWS. 1995. Recovery Updates. Endangered Species Bulletin. 20, 6: 26.

Vincent, Michael A. 2001. The genus Trifolium (Fabaceae) in Kentucky. Journal of the Kentucky Academy of Science. 62, 1: 1-17.

White, D.L. 1998. Rare Plants of the Bluegrass. Naturally Kentucky, Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission. Number 26: 1,4.

Magazine Articles

Rogers, G. 1988. Native Plants. Missouri Native Plant Society: 5. 1. 1-2.


2000. Biological Assessment for Threatened and Endangered Species on the Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia. Milwaukee, WI: USDA Forest Service, Eastern Region. p.141.

USFWS. 1989. Recovery Plan for Running Buffalo Clover (Trifolium stoloniferum). Twin Cities, Minnesota: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. p.26.

  This profile was updated on 3/4/2010
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