Wednesday Weed – Ribbed Melilot

Ribbed melilot (Melilotus officinalis)

Dear Readers, you might remember that I found this plant in a tree-pit a few days ago and so I thought I’d do some digging and find out a bit more about it. I suspect that it has arrived in a wildflower seed mix, but it arrived in the UK in about 1835, probably via North America, though as it is originally from south east Europe it may well have made its own way here over time. Ribbed melilot is a member of the pea and bean family (Fabaceae), and there are several similar species – tall melilot is, well, taller, and then there’s a white version, called imaginatively white melilot. All of them are popular with pollinators, but ribbed melilot in particular has a high nectar content – honeybee hives are sometimes placed close to melilot fields, and can produce up to 200 pounds of honey per year. 

I keep changing my mind about my favourite plant family – one day it’s the carrot family, with Queen Anne’s lace and wild carrot and angelica and all those other fluffy, useful flowers. Then it’s the brassicas, the origin of so many foodplants and with such useful plants for insects as well, such as garlic mustard for the orange-tip butterflies. On balance it’s probably the peas and beans, because of their variety, and the way that they improve the soil, but it’s quite possible that I’ll change my mind again. Do you have a favourite type of plant? Do share. There are so many candidates, all contributing to the ecosystem in their own particular way.

Red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) on ribbed melilot (Photo by By Ivar Leidus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Also known as sweet clover, the melilots are also known as sweet clover, and contain a chemical called coumarin which is responsible for the sweet smell of hay – although the odour is delicious, the taste is bitter, and it’s thought that coumarin acts as a deterrent to grazing animals. However, the chemical can be converted to a potent anticoagulant by some fungi, which can cause sweet clover disease if cattle are fed the plant in silage or hay. However, the anticoagulant is also used as a rodenticide, which always sounds to me like a particularly unpleasant way for a rat or mouse to die. 

Photo by By AnRo0002 – Own work, CC0,

Before the advent of nitrogen fertilisers, ribbed melilot was used as a green manure, and was ploughed back into fields so that its nitrogen content could improve the soil. These days, the plant is also used to ‘clean’ soils contaminated by dioxins, and it is also very drought-tolerant, a great feature in these uncertain times.

Various creatures eat the seeds of the melilot species, including game birds such as partidge and pheasant, and a whole raft of tiny moths and butterflies. The caterpillars of some Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola) butterflies seem to have taken a shine  to the plant, as have the larvae of the Clouded Yellow, a migratory butterfly that sometimes crops up on the coast, and the larvae of the Grass Eggar, a rare moth found pretty much exclusively on the south and west coasts. The moth is discreet and furry, but the caterpillar is clearly something of a dandy.

The caterpillar of the Grass Eggar moth (Lasiocampa trifolii) (see below for attribution)

Adult grass eggar moth (Photo By Donkey shot – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

And finally, for a poem, how about this one by Sappho? I am not sure that the translation quite does it justice (if it was me I would certainly be doing something about that garden grot, which has quite different connotations these days). Melilot  crops up a lot in her poetry (it is originally a southern European plant, as we’ve noted), with its hay-scented perfume, and flowers in general (and roses in particular) stand for female desire. Phaon was said to be Sappho’s (male) lover, and she was supposed to have thrown herself into the sea for the love of him. It’s all very confusing when, nowadays, we associate Sappho much more with her love for women, but then who said that humans had to be consistent? If you know more about Sappho and her love life than I do, fire away!

Golden pulse grew on the shore,
Ferns along the hill,
And the red cliff roses bore
Bees to drink their fill;

Bees that from the meadows bring
Wine of melilot,
Honey-sups on golden wing
To the garden grot.

But to me, neglected flower,
Phaon will not see,
Passion brings no crowning hour,
Honey nor the bee.

Photo Credit

The caterpillar photo above has the following attribution –  No machine-readable author provided. Svdmolen assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY 2.5,

6 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Ribbed Melilot

  1. Shannon (aka Bonnie and Orlando)

    I’m quite partial to the salvia family, which has an astonishing variety of plants, including culinary sage and rosemary. It has a distinctive reproductive strategy that apparently allows for new species to form easily, resulting in a wide range of colors and structures.

    I was at a garden store recently with my son and he kept pointing out flowers he liked, and I kept saying, “That’s a salvia,” until he finally said, “They can’t all be salvias!” Yes, yes they can.

    We ended up with a some showy Salvia greggii in coral. The bees never seem to care which salvias I plant…They love them all!

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Ha! I had forgotten all about salvias, they are extraordinary plants. Clearly I shall end up with about ten favourite plant families….

  2. Alyson Bradley

    My Mum’s nickname for this (before discovering it’s proper name) was ‘car park plant’ as this was where she saw it!

  3. Kathleen

    I think my favourite plant family has to be the rose family. Not only do we have our wonderful garden roses and wild roses, but also all those tasty fruits – apples, plums, strawberries….although I could probably change my mind daily about this…after all, I could choose the birches, or the daisies. Difficult question!

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I love roses too, they really do provide us with so much that’s good. I think I might be fickle with my favourites. Maybe I can have a ‘favourite of the season/mood/week’ :-).


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