Tick Trefoil

Biological Name:

Desmodium spp. (Tick-Trefoil)

Natural Habitat:

Tick-Trefoil: Typically found in a variety of habitats, including fields, forests, and wetlands, in North America.


Tick-Trefoil also known as Desmodium is a plant that is native to grassland and prairie regions of North America. It is an annual herb that can grow up to two feet tall and it has small oval-shaped leaves and small pink or purple flowers that bloom in the summer. The plant is known for its ability to attach to clothing or animal fur with its tiny hooked hairs and it is often found in disturbed or degraded habitats.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: Why is it called tick trefoil?
A: The species name refers to the blunt-tipped leaves. The common name of this species is in reference to the fruit’s ability to stick to animals like ticks. Trefoil refers to the three stiff leaflets that make up each leaf.

Q: Is Hop trefoil invasive?
A: The US Department of Agriculture does not list Hop Clover as an invasive plant. Hop Clover does not appear on the Federal Noxious Weed List.

Q: What are the little plants that stick to your clothes?
A: Great Burdock, Common Burdock. Tick-trefoils, .Pointed-leaf Tick-trefoil has a pointed leaf, Showy Tick-trefoil has linear leaves. Beggar-ticks, Beggar’s-lice (Stickseed)

Q: Where does trefoil grow?
A: Birdsfoot trefoil is found in prairies and open areas, such as roadsides. It forms dense mats, choking and shading out most other vegetation. Prescribed burns increase germination, making it troublesome in native prairies. See the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommendations for reporting invasive species.

Q: How do you grow trefoil?
A: Growing Birdsfoot Trefoil as Cover Crop The best time to plant is in early spring, but you can also plant in late summer if the soil is damp enough. The seedlings need consistently moist soil as they become established. The advantage of planting in late summer is that there won’t be as much competition from weeds.

Q: What are those green things that stick to your clothes?
A: Often remembered from childhood, goose grass or sticky willy has clinging hairs on its leaves, stem and seeds which stick to your clothes.

Q: Is tick trefoil edible?
A: Wildlife Food: The seeds are used by a variety of birds and other wildlife. Like many other members of the Bean family, this plant is highly edible to various mammalian herbivores, including deer, rabbits, groundhogs, and livestock.

Q: What is trefoil good for?
A: When growing conditions are challenging for alfalfa cultivation, birdsfoot trefoil is an appropriate, though lesser-known, source of good-quality protein and energy for horses. Birdsfoot trefoil is a perennial legume that is often grown as a forage source for sheep and cattle, and is nutritious for horses as well.

Q: Is Birdsfoot trefoil good for wildlife?
A: Common bird’s-foot-trefoil is an important foodplant for the caterpillars of the common blue, silver-studded blue and wood white butterflies; the latter two species are both classified as Priority Species under the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework. Its flowers are a good nectar source for bees.

Q: Does showy tick trefoil spread?
A: Gamebirds and small rodents eat the seeds. This plant is also highly edible to various mammalian herbivores, including deer, rabbits, groundhogs, and livestock. Highly adaptable, Showy Tick Trefoil will spread quickly in optimum growing conditions, requiring a great deal of space for its full development.

Q: Is trefoil an annual or perennial?
A: Birdsfoot trefoil is a perennial that adapts well to production on poorly drained, low-pH soils (Table 1). It can reseed itself, is resistant to Phytophthora root rot and numerous alfalfa insects, responds well to fertilization, and does not cause bloat in animals.

Q: How do you control trefoil?
A: Birdsfoot trefoil in lawns can be controlled with broadleaf herbicides. The most effective broadleaf herbicides are those products that contain two or more of the following compounds: 2,4-D, MCPP, MCPA, dicamba, triclopyr, and others.

Q: Is trefoil an invasive species?
A: Quick facts. Birdsfoot trefoil is an invasive species. It should be reported. Birdsfoot trefoil is found in prairies and open areas, such as roadsides.

Q: Is Birdsfoot trefoil hard to grow?
A: Trefoil is no more difficult to establish than other forages, but it requires a different technique. During the seedling period (first 60 to 90 days of life), it is less aggressive than most plants, so competition from other plants must be controlled. Trefoil may be seeded in late winter, early spring or fall.

Q: How do you keep tickseed blooming?
A: To keep tickseed flowering, you must deadhead, or cut away spent blooms. This will also help keep them from going to seed and spreading too quickly.

Q: Is trefoil the same as clover?
A: Clover or trefoil are common names for plants of the genus Trifolium (from Latin tres ‘three’ + folium ‘leaf’), consisting of about 300 species of flowering plants in the legume or pea family Fabaceae originating in Europe.

Q: Where is showy tick trefoil native to?
A: Showy Tick Trefoil is a herbaceous flowering perennial native to the upper Midwest, North Eastern United States, and into Canada. As it’s name implies, it makes beautiful pink-purple blooms in July/August. As a legume, it will fix nitrogen to the soil for use during the growing season.

Q: Is trefoil good for bees?
A: Value for wildlife Bird’s-foot trefoil produces a valuable source of nectar that attracts both bumble bees and honey bees. It’s also a popular plant for various species of butterflies that visit foe its nectar.

Q: Is Birdsfoot trefoil poisonous to humans?
A: After some intensive googling, I found one of my favorite descriptions of its edibility: “Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus, is a member of the Pea Family and has been considered both edible and medicinal but be aware that all parts of this plant are poisonous.” (cargocultcafe.com).

Q: Is trefoil good for deer?
A: Wildlife: Birdsfoot trefoil is a choice food for Canada goose, deer, and elk. As ground cover, it provides green cover most of the year and blooms profusely.

Q: Is Birdsfoot trefoil drought tolerant?
A: Birdsfoot trefoil is used as an excellent non-bloating forage, and is good as pasture, hay, or silage for horses and cattle. It is especially good on infertile, poorly-drained soils, and those that are difficult to cultivate. It is a drought resistant ground cover.

About the author

Samuel is a gardening professional and enthusiast who has spent over 20 years advising homeowners and farm owners on weed identification, prevention and removal. He has an undergraduate degree in plant and soil science from Michigan State University.