Ribbed melilot – Melilotus officinalis
Melilots are a group in the Pea family, the most common in the South East being Ribbed melilot, Melilotus officinalis. It can be identified by 5cm long yellow racemes (spikes) of 5mm pea flowers held in an elliptical shape. In my opinion they can be separated from the medicks by the narrow raceme shape. The plants I saw were in rough grass near the sea and about 70cm high. The leaves are trifoliate (split into three leaflets) and I think the leaflet shape is also quite distinctive.
Melilotus officinalis is also known as Sweet clover and has been traditionally used as a treatment for varicose veins. It was also used historically as a green manure and is a valuable source of nectar for honeybees.
Identifying other melilots
There are other species in the genus Melilotus, but these can be separated out in the following way: white melilot, Melilotus albus, has white flowers; small melilot, Melilotus indicus, has tiny yellow flowers (2mm). This only leaves tall melilot, Melilotus altissimus, which is similar to the ribbed melilot except for a height of up to 1.5m, and I believe the flower racemes are not elliptical. Historic data seems to show that tall melilot is less common in Kent and Sussex but I hear this may be due to confusion with ribbed. The name “ribbed” refers to transverse (horizontal) ridges across the seed pods.
I am therefore identifying the specimens I spotted near Herne Bay as Ribbed melilot, Melilotus officinalis – tell me if I’m wrong!
Blog posts mentioning melilots and the genus Melilotus are tagged melilot