Botanical name…Filipendula ulmaria
Filium “thread”. Pendulus “hanging”. Refers to root tubers hanging off fibrous roots.
Ulmaria “elmlike”, referring to the leaves which resemble “Elm” (ulmus)
Old Botanical name…Spiraea ulmaria. (see later!)
“Meadowsweet” is a member of the rose family, and grows in damp meadows, ditches and river banks. It’s creamy white, sweet smelling, frothy clusters of flowers can be seen in large numbers in the “marginal garden”, adjacent to the Lower Knapp Pond. Despite their fragrance, the flowers produce no nectar, but insects visit, and pollinate, just the same.
Meadowsweet has two very different aromas. An old north country name for the plant was “courtship and matrimony”. The blunt northerners said that, the heady, sweet smell of the flowers represented courtship, the more pungent almond smell of the crushed leaves represented the reality of married life!!
“Bridewort” is a later name, as the flowers were strewn in church, at weddings, and used in bridal garlands. Meadowsweet was a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth 1, who used it instead of straw, on the stone floors of her chambers. The leaves bruised as they were walked on, releasing an antiseptic, almond scent, that masked the much more unpleasant odours around.
“Meadwort” is an older name for this plant, as it was used to flavour mead (Old English “medowyrt”), and this is the origin of the name “Meadowsweet”.
“Meadowsweet” is a foragers delight, as the flowers, leaves and roots can all be ingredients in food and drink. The sweet flowers can be used in wine, beer and vinegar, as well as stewed fruit and jams. The almond scented leaves can be added to soups, savoury and fruit stews. The bitter roots, along with the rest of the plant, makes a tea substitute.
I believe that the most interesting use of “Meadowsweet” is in herbal medicine, and later, conventional medicine. Historically, it has been used for digestive problems, liver disorders, cystitis, rheumatism, cellulitis and many other ailments. The explanation for it’s popular use in herbal medicine was discovered in 1830, when salicin was extracted from flower buds. The German drug company, “Bayer”, worked on this discovery, and in 1897, synthesised acetyl salicylic acid from salicin. They named this drug “Aspirin”. (“a” for acetyl, and “spirin” from the old botanical name of Meadowsweet (Spiraea). This new drug led to the development, over the years, of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in common use today.
Extract of Meadowsweet reduces acidity in the stomach, and contains chemicals which inhibit the growth of a bacteria (Helicobacter pylori), an important cause of gastric ulceration, and significant in the formation of some stomach tumours.
No wonder this plant has been popular in the history of herbal medicine. I do not suppose that Queen Elizabeth 1 realised that, as she walked bare footed on the “Meadowsweet”, strewn around her chambers, that she absorbed, through her skin, an early form of “Aspirin”. Let us hope that some of the headaches of power, were relieved by this interesting plant.