There are few greater joys in life than to find yourself on the sun-warmed banks of a river in mid-May. At this bountiful time of year, between the fervour of spring and idle days of summer, the water's margins billow with great masses of buttery meadowsweet and bedstraw. Butterflies take to the wing, herons stalk, and all the while the river gently glugs. Our canals and lakes deliver a similar sense of peace.

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While you're there, why not gain a deeper connection with the flora and fauna of the water's edge by identifying these 12 riverside plants? Long time angler and river walker Kevin Parr tells us what to look for.


12 riverside plants to spot

Common reed

Phragmites australis

Riverside plant
Common reed/Credit: Alamy

Growing more than two metres tall over vast areas, this forms vital habitat for invertebrates, warblers and rare birds such as bitterns. It tolerates brackish water but struggles in high acidity.

Hemp agrimony

Eupatorium cannabinum

Riverside plant
Hemp agrimony/Credit: Getty

Also known as holy rope, its mauve flowers are clustered in racemes and appear in late summer, attracting butterflies in particular. It is used traditionally in European medicine as an anti-inflammatory agent.

Water mint

Mentha aquatica

Riverside plant
Water mint/Credit: Alamy

Common, widespread and often smelt before seen, this is popularly cultivated and used for infusions and essential oils. The oval leaves and tiny purple flowers are distinct.

Yellow flag

Iris pseudacorus

Riverside plant
Yellow flag/Credit: Getty

Its striking yellow flowers make the yellow flag popular as an ornamental plant. Often cited as
an indicator species, iris beds form vital habitats for the elusive corncrake in western Scotland.

Alder

Alnus glutinosa

Riverside plant
Alder/Credit: Alamy

This pioneer species thrives in poor-quality soil, which it improves for other plants. Alder hardens like rock when submerged and was used in the construction of crannogs (island dwellings built by ancient humans).

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Common bulrush

Typha latifolia

Riverside plant
Common bulrush/Credit: Getty

Also known as reedmace, the bulrush is fast-growing and vigorous, with distinctive brown cigar seed heads tipped by buff flowers. The rhizomes are foraged for food but are susceptible to water pollution.

Common club rush

Schoenoplectrus lacustris

Waterside plant
Common club rush/Credit: Goran Afarek, Alamy

Commonly found beside slow rivers and marshland, with thin, tapering stems and submerged leaves. The flowers are small spikes of brown and emerge from the top of the stalk.

River and trees

Hemlock water dropwort

Oenanthe crocata

Riverside plant
Hemlock water dropwort/Credit: Florapix, Alamy

All parts of this common and deadly plant are poisonous if ingested. Its nefarious use in Sardinia, and the facial expression of poisoned victims, is believed to have led to the term ‘sardonic grin’.

Meadowsweet

Filipendula ulmaria

Riverside plant
Meadowsweet/Credit: Alamy

A favourite flower of Elizabeth I, the creamy dollops of meadowsweet are a sign and smell of late summer. This widespread plant has a delicate flavour that has long been used in homeopathy, medicine and cooking.

Marsh bedstraw

Galium palustre

Riverside plant
Marsh bedstraw/Credit: Getty

Widespread in wetland habitats, this delicate, slightly spindly perennial has small, bright white flowers. It is one of many species of bedstraw, so called because it was once used to stuff mattresses.

White willow

Salix alba

Riverside plant
White willow/Credit: Alamy

One of several common willow species, the white willow is familiar due to its long, slim leaves that glisten in silvery white. The hybrid Salix alba ‘Tristis’ is known for its long, ‘weeping’ branches.

Purple loosestrife

Lythrum salicaria

Riverside plant
Purple loosestrife/Credit: Getty
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Tall and striking with red-purple stalks and similar hued flowers, this often grows in dense clumps and attracts pollinating insects. Used traditionally as a treatment for gastric ailments.

Authors

Writer, fisherman and amateur naturalist

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