This week the star of my Oxford Canal edgeland flora post is prompted by a TV programme. Last night I was watching a recording of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new River Cottage series (amazingly it’s Series 19! – what a franchise!) called River Cottage to the Core and my attention was drawn to a foraged wayside plant being used to make fragrant mojitos! (see link below), one to the plants chosen was meadowsweet.
The fragrant Meadowsweet (also known as Queen of the Meadow, Pride of the meadow, Meadow-Wort, Meadow Queen, Lady of the Meadow, Meadsweet and Bridewort) is one of the best-known wild flowers, with its fern-like foliage and tufts of delicate, creamy-white flowers, in blossom from June to almost September.
The leaves are dark green on the upper side and whitish and downy underneath, they are much divided. The stems are 2 to 4 feet high, erect and furrowed, sometimes purple. The flowers are small, and cluster close together to form handsome irregularly-branched, soft-edged cones with a very strong, sweet smell.
A peculiarity of meadowsweet is that the scent of the leaves is quite different from the flowers. The latter possess an almond-like fragrance.
John Gerard (born 1545, Nantwich, Cheshire, Eng. died February 1612, London), English herbalist, and author of The Herball, or generall historie of plantes (1597) wrote:
‘The leaves and floures of Meadowsweet farre excelle all other strowing herbs for to decke up houses, to strawe in chambers, halls and banqueting-houses in the summer-time, for the smell thereof makes the heart merrie and joyful and delighteth the senses.’
Meadowsweet, water-mint, and vervain were three herbs held most sacred by the Druids.
It was also one of the fifty ingredients in a drink called ‘Save’ mentioned in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale; in the fourteenth century it was often described as called Medwort, or Meadwort, ie. the honey-wine herb, and the flowers were often put into wine and beer. It is still incorporated in many herb beers.The flowers can also be added to stewed fruit and jams, to take advantage of the subtle almond flavor.
Meadowsweet has many medicinal properties. The whole plant is a traditional remedy for an acidic stomach, and the fresh root is often used in infinitesimal quantities in homeopathic preparations. Dried, the flowers are used in pot pourri.
Chemical constituents include salicylic acid, flavone glycosides, essential oils, and tannins.
In 1897, Felix Hoffmann created a synthetically altered version of salicin, derived from the species, which caused less digestive upset than pure salicylic acid. The new drug, formally acetylsalicylic acid, was named aspirin by Hoffman’s employer Bayer AG after the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria. This gave rise to the class of drugs known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
White-flowered meadowsweet has been found with the cremated remains of three people and at least one animal in a Bronze Age cairn at Fan Foel, Carmarthenshire. Similar finds have also been found inside a Beaker burial from Ashgrove, Fife, and a vessel from North Mains, Strathallan. These could indicate that honey-based mead or flavoured ale was buried with the remains, or might suggest that the plant placed on the grave as a scented flower.