Of the twenty-five or more species of Melilotus common to the old world, three have become widely spread in America. Of these the two biennial forms, one with white blossoms and the other with yellow, have proved to be valuable forage plants despite a long struggle to eradicate them as weeds.
How and when sweet clovers came to America appears to be unknown. Since they were not recognized as forage plants for nearly two centuries after their introduction, it is probable that the introduction was accidental. If this is true, it is one of very few cases where an accidental introduction proved valuable.
According to Bonnier, well-known French botanist, the white sweet clover originated in Asia and spread over most of Europe, and other countries, especially in seaports and along railroads where it was spread by the normal activities of commerce. At present the yellow form appears to cover much the same territory. Indications are that eventually sweet clover will occupy a large portion of the temperate world.
The first American observations on sweet clover known to the writer were made on wild plants in Virginia in 1739, long before the Declaration of Independence. Most of the early references to the plant have to do with its attractions for the bees, and it soon came to be known as the "Bee Plant" or "Honey Plant" in many neighborhoods. Beekeepers soon came to recognize its value and did what they could to assist in its spread.
The bee magazines began discussing the merits of Melilotus, or sweet clover, almost from their beginning and continue even to this day. So persistently did the beekeepers spread the seed that in many different localities it is common to credit the presence of the plant to local beekeepers.
Soon after his arrival in this country, Charles Dadant found a single sweet clover plant blooming near the Mississippi River. Recognizing it as a good bee plant from his previous acquaintance in Europe, he set a stake to protect it until the seed should ripen. From this beginning he was able to spread sweet clover over much of the surrounding neighborhood. He sowed it in waste places, in quarries, along roads, along streams, and wherever he thought it had a chance to survive. He urged a friend across the river to sow it on the Iowa bank of the Mississippi, where it found a congenial environment and spread widely.
Dadant made numerous references to this original source of supply of seed in his writings in the bee magazines. He was only one of many who advocated the sowing of sweet clover for bee pasture, and the suggestion was not slow in finding general acceptance. The writer well remembers how a half century ago his own grandfather joined the movement by stealthily sowing seed in similar manner.
Few even among the beemen appreciated the fact that sweet clover might be of value aside from its attraction for the bees. King in his Beekeeper's Text Book stated that "Melilot is a handsome plant; but it is useless, except for ornament and for honey. " This was from the 1878 edition; the 1872 edition did not mention it at all.
The fact that sweet clover yielded nectar more freely in the drier climates accounts for some disagreement as to its value. In early editions of ABC, A. I. Root lacked enthusiasm for the plant. He stated that many times and seasons the bees would hardly notice it at all. He also wrote: "The statement has been made that an acre will support twenty colonies of bees and afford from 500 to 1,000 pounds of honey. Such statements are usually made by persons offering seed for sale, and although they may be honestly given, I think they should be received with due allowance. "
A. J. Cook was among the first to recognize the value of sweet clover and took samples to the national convention at an early period. He, however, seemed to fear the weedy characteristics of the plant, since, growing enthusiastic about the perfume of the blossoms and the music of the bees humming among the flowers, he warned that the plants were useless except for honey and would become pernicious weeds if allowed to spread.
Charles F. Muth, of Cincinnati, who was prominent as a honey bottler at that time, was quoted in Gleanings, in 1886, as saying that sweet clover honey had a dark and sooty color with good body and fair flavor, but that it would never do to put it on the market for table use.
Value of sweet clover as a forage crop was long overlooked ty American farmers.
Apparently the value as a forage plant was entirely overlooked for a long period, even though an editorial in the American Bee Journal, in July, 1867, had quoted European correspondence to the effect that it had a high character both as a honey source and as a forage crop. The editor commented that if it combined the two qualities it might receive favorable attention from farmers residing where soil and climate was suitable. Alas, how long was this recognition deferred. In 1868 another article appeared in the same magazine telling of the success of sweet clover as a forage crop and stating that cows, goats and sheep ate it readily. Such articles were unheeded, however.
It now seems unaccountable that such a prejudice against the plant should have sprung up and it is not easy to account for it. Perhaps it was because the plant adapted itself so readily to unfavorable situations, such as banks or roadsides, where so many plants would refuse to grow.
During the eighties and nineties the prejudice continued to grow and, in some places, unpleasant situations developed because farmers resented the sowing of sweet clover by the beekeepers. In several states laws were passed outlawing sweet clover as a noxious weed and providing a penalty for planting or cultivating it. It was many years before it finally was removed from the list of weeds in some of the states.