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If you’ve ever studied herbal cancer remedies for yourself or a loved one, you may have come across terms like Essiac tea or the Hoxsey formula. Doctors continue to study these word-of-mouth remedies to determine their true medicinal value and to isolate which of the ingredients may contain therapeutic compounds. One common denominator in these blends is red clover, a “weed” most homeowners consider a bane to their careful landscaping.
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With a round flower head and dozens of small, pinkish-purple petals, the familiar red clover appears on fields, lawns and sunny roadsides. The flowering wild plant blooms in mid- to late spring, and seldom grows taller than 18 inches. Apart from the obvious differences in their petal color, red clover differs from white clover by the V-shaped white markings that appear on red clover leaves.
As with soybeans and products made from soy, red clover flowers contain phytoestrogens, the plant-based compounds that are similar to the female hormone estrogen. The plants also provide minerals important to human health, including calcium, vitamin C, magnesium, phosphorus and niacin. Research involving red clover focuses on whether the plant’s chemical composition may help prevent some forms of cancer and specific disorders, especially in older women.
According to naturalist Steve Brill, red clover flowers impart an agreeable sweet flavor and spicy aroma to herbal tea, when used alone or in an herbal blend. Research continues on its effectiveness as a medicinal tea, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Red clover was a folk medicine remedy for cancer, and test tube research indicates that red clover’s phystoestrogen compounds kill the cells of certain cancers, or stops their growth. But because phytoestrogens are also linked to risks of other cancers, including breast cancer, red clover tea is not recommended as an all-purpose anti-cancer therapy, notes UMMC. Preliminary but mixed research suggests that red clover flowers may help women with certain symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes and bone density loss.
Red clover leaf tea is not known for its therapeutic value. While Brill reports that some of his fellow foragers swear by including young red clover leaves in their salads, tea made from the leaves of the plant are not associated with therapeutic properties. The American Cancer Society notes that commercial products containing red clover always include the flowers, rather than the leaves. Brill notes that he makes a “detox” tea utilizing both the flowers and the young leaves of red clover, and claims that it cleanses the liver and gall bladder while providing a tonic-like strengthening effect for the body’s entire system. Medical institutions such as UMMC, ASC and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, however, focus on red clover flowers exclusively when studying the medical value of clover tea and other preparations.
For people who don’t wish to take red clover flower in tea form, the herb comes in capsule, tincture and fluid extract form, notes the University of Maryland Medical Center. Some creams and ointments also contain extracts of red clover flowers, because some healers believe red clover helps heal skin disorders such as eczema when applied topically.
- American Cancer Socety: Red Clover
- National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Red Clover
- "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants"; Steve Brill; 1994
- Barbara Freiberga/iStock/Getty Images