Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus L.)

Common Name:

Birdsfoot Trefoil

Scientific Name:

Lotus corniculatus L.


Lotus corniculatus L. var. arvensis (Schkuhr) Ser. ex DC.





Europe, Asia, and Mediterranean region.

Time of introduction:

Early 1900s.


Birdsfoot trefoil is a long-lived, deep-rooted legume suitable for hay or pasture in areas with drainage problems or low soil pH. It is moderately winter-hardy and tolerant of dry summer conditions if soil depth provides available moisture. It can also be irrigated in shallow soils, or drier areas. Birdsfoot trefoil is a nonbloating legume quite suitable for sheep or cattle but not typically used for horse pasture, because of the presence of tannins. It is not tolerant of early spring grazing or continuous grazing and establishes slowly and with some difficulty, but is vigorous once established. Lotus species each require unique Rhizobium for nodulation. It tolerates only short periods of flooding.

Life cycle (annual/biennial/perennial):

Long-lived perennial.

Growth habit & Regrowth type:

Upright to decumbent growth habit. Regrowth from crown buds. Requires rest period to restore root carbohydrates.

Invasive potential:

Low. Difficult to establish.


Long lived (10+ years) once established if rest period is provided to ensure restoration of root carbohydrates.


Image Gallery: The OSU Forage Information System contains an Image Gallery that includes Birdsfoot Trefoil photographs and drawings useful in identification. The URL for the gallery is:

The direct URL for Birdsfoot Trefoil is:

Inflorescence: The inflorescence is a typical umbel having four to eight florets attached at the end of a relatively long peduncle or flower stem. (Birdsfoot trefoil flowers.)

The OSU Forage Information System contains an Image Gallery that includes birdsfoot trefoil photographs and drawings useful in identification. The URL for the gallery is:

The direct URL for birdsfoot trefoil is:

Flower: Flower color varies from light to dark yellow and may be tinged with orange or red stripes. (Birdsfoot trefoil florets.)

Seed: Ten to 15 seed are borne in long cylindrical pods which turn brown to almost black at maturity. An average of five or six pods, 1-1.5 inches (2.5-4 cm) long, are attached at right angles to the end of the flower stem giving the appearance of a bird's foot, thus the common name birdsfoot trefoil. Seed are very small, approximately 374,000-420,000 seeds/lb (825,000-925,000/kg), and vary in color from olive green to brown to almost black. Seed coats are often mottled with black spots varying in size from small dots to large patches. (Birdsfoot trefoil seed.)

Stem: Mature plants of birdsfoot trefoil have many well-branched stems arising from a single crown. Under favorable growing conditions the main stems attain a length of 25-35 inches (60-90 cm). Stems are generally smaller in diameter and less rigid than those of alfalfa. (Birdsfoot trefoil stem.)

Leaf: Compound leaves are attached alternately on opposite sides of the stem and consist of three leaflets attached to the terminal end of the petiole and two large stipules at the base. During darkness the leaflets close around the petiole and stem. *** Note: there is some diagreement among botanists. Some refer to the large stipules as leaflets. (Birdsfoot trefoil leaf.)

Stipules: Large and leaf-like stipules. (Birdsfoot trefoil stipules.)

Root: Birdsfoot trefoil has a well-developed taproot with numerous lateral branches in the upper 12-25 inches (30-60 cm) of soil. The taproot does not penetrate as deeply as alfalfa and the distribution of branch roots in the upper soil is more extensive. Birdsfoot trefoil roots have the ability to produce new shoots. Root segments taken below the crown will develop shoots and roots from callous tissue and grow into new plants. This ability to develop shoots from roots may aid plant survival when heaving occurs and roots are severed.

Physiology and growth period:

Lotus species have cool-season (C3) physiology but, with adequate soil moisture, they will grow the entire season from late Spring (50 F; 10 C) until hard freeze (26 F; -3 C). Typically, this is from April to early October.


Fertilization and seed set depend on pollination of flowers by insects, primarily species of Hymenoptera (bees). Although self-pollination occurs, a self incompatibility mechanism limits the development of self-seed. Seed pods shatter when dry, so harvest losses are high due to indeterminate growth habit and inability to time harvest properly for all seed pods.

Quality/anti-quality factors:

Birdsfoot trefoil has nutritive value equal to or greater than that of alfalfa and has high feeding value as pasture, hay, or silage. Birdsfoot trefoil does not cause bloat, perhaps because it contains tannin, which precipitates the soluble proteins and renders them incapable of producing stable foams in the rumen. As plants mature, quality is maintained better than alfalfa, since trefoil growth habit is indeterminate.

Antiquality Factors
High tannin content reduces the palatability to some livestock, but its nonbloating nature is an advantage.



Suitability zones:

Lotus species are well suited to moderate winter portions of the temperate zone. They are tolerant of drought, moderate soil acidity, and poorly drained soils.



Birdsfoot trefoil grows on many different types of soils, from clays to sandy loams. It will grow on droughty, infertile, acid, or mildly alkaline soils, on mine spoils, and under saline and waterlogged conditions. Birdsfoot trefoil is more tolerant than alfalfa to adverse soil conditions, but less cold or heat tolerant.

Quantitiative Table:

Max Temp (C)
Min Temp (C)
Precip (mm)
Soil pH Soil Drainage
Soil Salinity
Low High Low High Low High Low High Low High Low High
Well Adapted 20 30 -5 9999 600 1500 5.8 7.5 SPD MWD 0 6
Moderate 18 32 -7.5 9999 500 1500 5.5 8.0 PD WD 0 8
Marginal 16 34 -10 9999 400 1500 5.0 8.5 PD SED 0 12
1. For the High values for January Minimum temperature and Annual Precipitation: "9999 is entered to indicate no limit to the high values for this tolerance category."
2. For Soil Drainage categories, " Abbreviations are used for Soil Drainage categories: VPD (very poorly drained), PD (poorly drained), SPD (somewhat poorly drained), MWD (moderately well drained), WD (well drained), SED (somewhat excessively drained), ED (excessively drained)."

Climate: Moderate winter hardiness. Most North American and European cultivars are winter-hardy in the northern US and southern Canada, but winter-killing of European-type cultivars from South America makes them unadapted north of 45 ° N latitude. Severe winter conditions, or winters with variable temperatures, can be detrimental to all birdsfoot trefoil cultivars. Winter snow cover is critical to birdsfoot trefoil survival above 40 ° N latitude.

Soils: Adapted to well-drained to somewhat poorly drained soils of medium fertility. Tolerant of drought and moderate soil acidity (pH 5.5). Birdsfoot trefoil can tolerate low oxygen levels by effectively metabolizing the ethanol produced from its roots; flooding tolerance of 20-30 days.

Grazing Management: Early spring or continuous grazing of birdsfoot trefoil will weaken and eventually eliminate a stand. Rotational grazing should be used, allowing animals to graze when the first flowers appear. For use as pasture, this will typically allow two grazing periods on dryland pastures or three grazing periods on irrigated land. If used as a combination of hay and pasture, a hay crop can be taken at early bloom and the regrowth grazed at first flower. On irrigated areas, two regrowths can be expected and can be used as hay or pasture. The third hay crop, or grazing period, can be expected in early Autumn. Regrowth can be grazed in late Autumn. Birdsfoot trefoil is persistent and has a long life when managed properly.

Turf Management: Birdsfoot trefoil is not used as a turf species, although dwarf types could be used as amenity plants in no traffic areas.

Pests: Diseases: Susceptible to sclerotinia, crown and stem rot, rhizoctonia, fusarium root rot, and verticillum.

Pests: Insects: Losses of forage and seed are caused by meadow spittlebug, the potato leafhopper, Adelphocoris lineolaris, Lygus lineolaris, and Plagiognathus chrysanthemi.

Pests: Nematodes: Nematodes are a major problem on sandy soils.


Cascade and Granger are varieties historically developed for use in Oregon. Kalo, a dwarf English variety, is suitable for grazing, ground cover, or erosion control. Empire is a selected ecotype found in Albany county, N.Y. It is semi-erect, fine stemmed, and flowers 10-14 days later than common European types.


Vendor section not to be used in "Beneficial Species White Papers."

Forage Information System Database of Vendors (type in birdsfoot trefoil in the search text box)


Weak seedling vigor is the major problem encountered when establishing stands. Because birdsfoot trefoil has a relatively slow growth rate and small seed size, good seeding practices and weed control are essential. Seed should be covered slightly or planted 1/2 inch (1 cm) deep. Band seeding (planting seed above a band of fertilizer but not in contact with the fertilizer) will enhance seedling vigor. Birdsfoot trefoil, like all legumes, should be treated before planting with the proper strain of Rhizobium bacteria to ensure nodulation and high rates of nitrogen fixation. This nitrogen eliminates the need for using fertilizer nitrogen. Be sure to use the correct inoculum for birdsfoot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), as the bacteria used for alfalfa or other legumes are not effective in nodulating birdsfoot trefoil. Even inoculum for other trefoil species will not effectively nodulate birdsfoot trefoil. Planting can take place in the early spring or late summer. Early spring planting is preferable because of ample soil moisture for germination and seedling development. *** Note: Use a roller to ensure good seed-soil contact, good germination, and successful establishment.

Seeding rate:

Use 4 to 6 lbs/acre (5.5 to 12 kg/ha).

Seeding depth:

Plant no deeper than 0.5 inches (1 cm) or broadcast and follow with a cultipacker and roller.

Fertilization and liming:

One of the major advantages of birdsfoot trefoil is its tolerance to low fertility and to low soil pH. However, optimal forage growth will occur on fertile, moderately well-drained soils with a pH between 6.0 and 6.5. A moderate application of phosphorus and sulfur at planting based on soil test data, will provide for good growth.


Birdsfoot trefoil is used for forage, soil conservation, and wildlife habitat and feed.

Seed crop:

U.S. seed production occurs primarily in New York and Vermont. Canada also produces significant quantities of seed. Harvest is difficult due to shattering of seed pods and indeterminate growth habit.


Birdsfoot trefoil is a non-bloating legume that is suitable for use in permanent pastures or for use as a hay crop, either alone or sown in combination with grasses. When used for grazing, birdsfoot trefoil is used to best advantage in a rotational grazing system. When grown for hay on land that is suitable for alfalfa, birdsfoot will produce considerably less forage than alfalfa. For this reason, birdsfoot trefoil should be used only in areas that are not suitable for alfalfa production because of their acidity, poor drainage, or low fertility.

Erosion Control/Conservation:

Birdsfoot trefoil is well suited to meadows and other somewhat poorly drained conditions in need of erosion control. Planted with tall fescue it will provide good soil cover.

Wildlife habitat and feed:

Birdsfoot trefoil makes high quality livestock feed and, when mixed with grasses and other species, will provide season-long forage and wildlife habitat.


Birdsfoot trefoil is not used as a turf species.

Economic value:


For the -- million pounds (------- kg) of birdsfoot trefoil seed produced each year, the farm-gate seed value is approximately $-------, wholesale value is $---------, and retail value is $--------.


Approximately 50 million acres (22.5 million hectares) of pastureland contain birdsfoot trefoil as at least 10% of the mixture of species. If this pasture averages ---- pounds (---- kg) of dry matter with a hay replacement value of $-- per ton, this would be equivalent to $--- per acre. If 10% of that $--- was attributed to birdsfoot trefoil, that would be $-- per acre or $--- million in value.

Soil and water conservation:

"Green accounting" is difficult. Reductions in soil loss and improvement of water quality could be attributed in part to the percentage of birdsfoot trefoil in the mixture of species used for erosion control.


Birdsfoot trefoil is not used as a turf species.


  1. Ball, D.M., and C.S. Hoveland. 1996. Southern Forages (Second Edition). Potash and Phosphate Institute and Foundation for Agronomic Research. Narcross, GA.
  2. Beuselinck, P.R. (ed.). 1999. The science and technology of Lotus. CSSA Special Publication 28. ASA, and CSSA, Madison, WI. 266 pp.
  3. Beuselinck, P.R., and W.F. Grant. 1995. Forages Volume 1: An Introduction to Grassland Agriculture. Iowa State University Press. Ames, Iowa. 19:237-248.
  4. Johnson, K. Birdsfoot Trefoil. 2004. Forage Field Guide. Purdue University. West Lafayette, Indiana. 11 pp.
  5. Seaney, R.R. 1973. Forages: The Science of Grassland Agriculture (Third Edition): Birdsfoot Trefoil. The Iowa State University Press. Ames, Iowa. 17:177-188.
  6. USDA, NRCS. 2004. The PLANTS Database, Version 3.5 [Online]. National Plant Data Center. Baton Rouge, LA. Available at (verified 14 July 2004).


David B. Hannaway and Daniel Myers, Oregon State University

Document creation:

16 June 2004

Last update:

19 October 2004


Paul Beuselinck

Review date:

18 October 2004