Friday, April 15, 2011

Filipendula ulmaria - Meadowsweet

Filipendula ulmaria - Meadowsweet, also known as Queen of the Meadow, Pride of the Meadow, Meadow Wort, Meadow Queen, Lady of the Meadow, Dollof, Meadsweet and Bridewort.

The fragrant Meadowsweet is one of the best known wild flowers, it was previously called Spiraeae ulmaria, and the term aspirin comes from this name. The name ulmaria means elmlike, but it does not resemble the elm (Ulmus) in any way. However, like slippery elm bark, the plant contains salicylic acid, which has long been used as a painkiller, and this may be the source of the name.

The generic name, Filipendula, comes from filum, meaning "thread" and pendulus, meaning "hanging." This name possibly came due to the root tubers that hang on fibrous roots. Meadowsweet grows in damp meadows. It is native throughout most of Europe and Western Asia. It has been introduced and naturalized in North America. The stems are 3–7 ft tall, erect and furrowed, reddish to sometimes purple. The leaves are dark green on the upper side and whitish and downy underneath, divided, interruptedly pinnate, having a few large serrated leaflets and small intermediate ones.

Meadowsweet has delicate, graceful, creamy-white flowers clustered close together in handsome irregularly-branched cymes, having a very strong, sweet smell. The flowers gives off a pleasant wintergreen scent while the leaves smell of a sweet almond fragrance.  They flower from June to early September.  It's leaves are commonly galled by the bright orange rust fungus Triphragmium ulmariae which creates swellings and distortions on the stalk and mid-rib.  The Meadowsweet Rust gall develops as a chemically induced swelling, arising from the lower surface of the Meadowsweet leaves.

Filipendula is a food plant for hoverflies, bees and the caterpillars of numerous moths. Its seeds provide food for birds.  The whole herb possesses a pleasant taste and flavour, the green parts having an almond scent, leading to the use of the plant as a strewing herb.  It was also used to flavour wine, beer and many vinegars. The flowers can be added to stewed fruit and jams, giving them a subtle almond flavor.  Dried, the flowers make lovely pot pourri. 

Orange rust fungus gall
on Meadowsweet leaf
 Meadowsweet has many medicinal properties, it contains several powerful salicylates, salts derived from salicylic acid that are chemically similar to aspirin but do not cause stomach bleeding. And, unlike aspirin, Filipendula has a positive effect on the digestive system, it protects and soothes the mucous membranes of the digestive tract, reducing excess acidity and alleviating nausea. 

It can be used in the treatment of heartburn, hyperacidity, gastritis and peptic ulceration.  It is also effective against the organisms causing diphtheria, dysentery and pneumonia. When when the root is peeled and crushed, it smells like the antiseptic Germolene, and when chewed  it relieves headaches.  The anti-inflammatory action of Filipendula makes it effective against rheumatic pain without the adverse effects which can cause gastric bleeding (aspirin can cause gastric ulceration), it also acts to reduce fever.
It is effective on its own as a treatment for diarrhea. The flowers, when made into a tea, are used to treat flu sufferers. The astringent tannins in Filipendula make it a useful remedy in the treatment of diarrhoea in children.  In Germany, it is used as a supportive treatment for common colds.  It is also recommended for water retention and for bladder and kidney ailments.  Externally the infusion can serve as a wash for wounds or inflamed eyes.

CautionsFilipendula contains the chemicals used to make aspirin. One in five people with asthma also have Samter's triad, in which aspirin induces asthma symptoms. Asthma sufferers should be aware that meadowsweet, with its similar biochemistry, could theoretically also induce symptoms of asthma.  This plant should be avoided by those with a hypersensitivity to salicylates. If the tincture is to be used to treat gastric ulceration or excess acidity, the alcohol content, which might otherwise irritate the gut, can be reduced by adding it to boiling water.

Meadowsweet, water-mint, and vervain were three herbs held most sacred by the Druids. It has been found with the cremated remains of three people and at least one animal in a Bronze Age cairn at Fan Foel, South Wales. Similar finds have also been found inside a vessels from Ashgrove and North Mains, Scotland. These could possibly indicate honey-based mead or flavoured ale, or alternatively might suggest the plant being placed on the grave as a scented flower.  In Welsh Mythology, Gwydion and Math created a woman out of oak blossom, broom, and meadowsweet and named her Blodeuwedd ("flower face"). 

In folklore there are claims that where Meadowsweet grows, there are no snakes nor evil nearby.  In divination, the plant was laid on water on St John’s Day to reveal a thief – a woman if it floated, a man if it sank.  A Russian folktale tells of Kudryash, the bravest knight in his village, who one day became terrified of his own death and could no longer fight.  When a band of thieves attacked the village, Kudryash ran away. Ashamed, he prepaired to drown himself in the river. But a beautiful maiden emerged from the water to stop him and gave him a garland of Meadowsweet flowers. She said he would be unharmed if he wore it in battle. He returned to the village, wore the garland and defeated the thieves.

Meadowsweet is known by many other names, and in Chaucer's The Knight's Tale it is known as Meadwort and was one of the ingredients in a drink called "save."  It was also known as Bridewort, because it was strewn in churches for festivals and weddings, and often made into bridal garlands. In Europe, it took its name "queen of the meadow" for the way it can dominate a low-lying, damp meadow. In the 16th century, when it was customary to strew floors with rushes and herbs (both to give warmth underfoot and to overcome smells and infections), it was Queen Elizabeth I's favorite strewing herb.  Gerard believed it outranked all other strewing herbs because its aromatic leaves didn’t cause headaches, unlike many other strongly scented leaves. 

Throughout history, meadowsweet maintained its usefulness in the home. Housewives used the plant in their cleaning routine, drying clusters of tiny white florets and placing them on the floor and in cabinets to mask unpleasant odors. Cooks used the herb to flavor beers, meads and wines and added it to soups for an interesting almond flavor.  The fresh leaves can be used to flavor sorbets and fruit salads. Infuse the flower to make a mild diuretic tea, let it steep to bring out the salicylic acid before serving.  As a cosmetic, it was soaked in rainwater and used as astringent and skin conditioner.

Ancient Celts used the plant as a dye from which black was obtained from the roots, the leaves produce a blue pigment and yellow is obtained from the plant tops.  An essential oil obtained from the flower buds is used in perfumery.

Seed is best sown in the autumn in a cold frame. The seed can also be sown in a cold frame in spring, germinating best at a temperature of 10-13C. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and plant them out in the summer if they have grown enough. If not, keep them in a cold frame for the winter and plant them out in late spring. Division should be done in autumn or winter. Larger clumps can be replanted directly into their permanent positions, though it is best to pot up smaller clumps and grow them on in a cold frame until they are rooting well, then plant them out in the spring.

Meadowsweet is a good candidate to grow in moist meadows or near bodies of water, where the herb blooms from June through August. And while it can grow in a variety of situations, it does require some attention. It reacts well to heavy compost at least once each season.  And if leaves become tattered in the summer, severely prune them and keep soil moist until new leaves emerge.  The herb is collected in July, when it is in flower and can be dried for later use.

Resouses include: 

Purple Sage Medicinal Herbs:
A Modern Herbal:
Encyclopedia of Life:
The Herb Companion:
Natural Medicinal Herbs:
Ecological Flora of the British Isles:


S. Waters said...

Great info here. Meadowsweet is definitely an herb that has my interest, and is an herb I'd like to add to my own medicinal garden.

I'm curious about how Meadowsweet is cultivated; are the flowers taken as a tea, or the leaves, as well?

Kris Hughes said...

Actually, the leaves of the meadowsweet plant do resemble the leaves of many elm tree species. I was always told that this was the origin of "ulmaria".

mbkarhu1 said...

My father was born in 1924. Once he had a very high fever, and his mother made meadowsweet tea, which had helped. In Finnish the plant is mesiangervo. - You made a nice blog some years ago, I wish you health.