Meadowsweet is undeniably one of the most valuable medicine plants we have on these isles. I can only imagine how many more people owe this plant a thankyou than actually know this plant, such is the general disconnect from nature and her wealth of medicines.
If I were to have to choose only half a dozen medicinal plants, this would be one of the first I would pick. It’s been used for millennia, and is still a backbone of our modern allopathic medicine. I will always stop for this herb on my regular foraging walks and courses, because of its sheer importance to post-industrial society. This perennial member of the rose family has become a firm and treasured favourite of mine, that I call on now for food as, a preventative medicine, as well as a curativemedicine.
This plant is one of 12 herbaceous perennials in the genus Filipendula. Often also known as the ‘Queen of the Meadows’, this plant’s modern scientific generic name Filipendula comes from the Latin word for thread, combined with the word pendulus- meaning hanging. Meadowsweet has a fibrous root system, which will reveal thread-like tissues hanging together when unearthed.
The specific name, ulmaria, stems from the Latin name for the elm tree – Ulmus, reportedly alluding to a somewhat similar appearance between the leaves of the elm and the leaflets of meadowsweet when merely glancing at the plant. The common name stems not from it being often found in meadows, but from the traditional use of meadowsweet in flavouring the alcoholic beverage – ‘Mead’.
Every spring from March onwards, meadowsweet reappears from its fibrous root crown. Initially, the small, light green leaves may not have their distinctive red leaf mid rib, and they are slow to grow, yet even at this early stage the plant can still easily be identified by crushing and smelling the leaf. They will exude a distinctive smell from its range of salicylate compounds, first discovered in Willow (Salix) species.
When hosting foraging walks people often use the term ‘deep-heat’ to describe the aroma because of the similarity of meadowsweet to that of the brand name topical anti-inflammatory products, which contain an array of salicylate derived molecules.
I know of no other herbaceous plants in the classic habitats of wet or damp meadows, ditch-banks, hedge-banks, streams or riversides which smell like meadowsweet. This plant is a characteristic component of habitats wherever water levels tend to fluctuate, yet it will be absent in permanently waterlogged sites.
Sometimes, the plant will also be found on drier sites such as north facing chalk grasslands but finding it here is much more rare, at least from my experience. Happily for the forager, meadowsweet can still easily be harvested throughout Britain, at many sites, and at elevations up to 880 metres, and even now, with the onslaught to its habitats by invasive exotics such as the himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) and Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica).
These last two plants both provide us with foods if we want it and will be covered here in due course. The former most notably gives us an interesting grain to eat. The latter gives us a plentiful supply of young shoots for use as you would do bamboo shoots, or as a replacement for rhubarb in rhubarb jam or crumble,or with beetroot in a stunning tangy relish. You need to cut the newly emergent stems as they appear, aiming for the top 10-12 cm. Eating both of these plants may help to keep the plants in check.
Identifying meadowsweet should be pretty easy, as there just aren’t many plants with similar looking compound and pinnate leaves. Typically each leaf has 7-11 pairs of leaflets with a terminal three-lobed leaflet. A deep red leaf mid-rib off-sets the green leaves nicely.
The serrated leaflets are oval-shaped, a common pattern of rose family foliage. The overall leaf-shape has a similar appearance to some of meadowsweet’s close relatives such as the medicinal agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), the edible cucumber-flavoured ‘salad burnet’ (Sangiusorba minor) and the tuberous-rooted ancient food crop, ‘silverweed’ (Potentilla anserina). As with many members of the rose family, meadowsweet’s leaves contain small stipules at the base of leaf.
Meadowsweet’s flowering spikes will appear from early summer onwards. These can reach up to 160 cm high, although around 100-130 cm is more common. The gorgeous inflorescence appears as a series of beautifully frothy, creamy-white sprays from the end of May into August.
Although individually small, collectively these flowers cannot fail to impress. When close up, you will find five petals and numerous stamens, essentially displaying rose family pattern. Green, and then brown seeds, will follow, and appear as clusters.
The flowers emit a very sweet and heady, vanilla/honey-like scent when in prime condition. Queen Elizabeth I was apparently so fond of this herb that she insisted on it being strewn around the floors of her palace apartments. At that time, the castles lacked sewage systems and undoubtedly reeked after a few weeks of the Court residing there, so it was absolutely necessary for sweet-smelling, disinfectant, antiseptic plants, to be used to mask the stench and to kill all the bugs!
Parts used Leaves and flowers.
Harvest Late spring – early summer.
Key constituents Tannins; essential oil (up to 70% salicylates); flavonoids (quercetin); phenolic glycosides.
Actions Anti-inflammatory, diuretic, astringent, and anti-septic.
Pharmacology and uses Salicylate-rich plant medicines have been used since Sumerian times (approximately 2000 B.C.) and are undoubtedly some of our most valuable healing agents.
Traditionally this plant has been used for conditions such as acid reflux, dyspepsia, gastritis, and peptic ulceration. Recent research – what little there has been on this plant – has shown the most effective extract at treating ulceration is the water infusion. This type of extract also contains higher concentrations of tannins (up to 12%, rather than 1% for the ethanol extract).
Meadowsweet is famed for the large concentrations of salicylates contained within the ariel parts. Salicylic acid derivatives were first extracted from willow bark (Salix spp) in the 1820’s, and then in larger concentrations from meadowsweet during the 1830’s.
At the time, meadowsweet was still known by its old scientific name of Spirea ulmaria, and had a long-standing folk-medicine reputation for healing upper gastric problems and respiratory ailments.
Inevitably, Scientists began experimenting with synthesising similar salicylic derivatives, in order to commercialise what they knew to be an extremely valuable healing agent. In the mid 1800’s, a new substance was formed by adding an acetyl group (essentially two extra carbon atoms) to salicylic acid, creating acetyl-salicylic acid, from which the well-known pharmaceutical drug Aspirin got its name. A-cetyl plus Spirea equals Aspirin!
You will also find reference to the molecule salicin in herbal books. This compound is the glycoside of salicylic acid, and both names are seemingly used interchangeably. As with all plants containing salicylates, meadowsweet acts on the human physiology through its abilities to gently suppress the central nervous system, as well as having a febrifuge action.
The salicylates are known to increase peripheral blood flow, and to increase sweating through their direct action on the thermogenic (thermostat) section of the hypothalamus gland in the brain.
Unlike aspirin, meadowsweet does not display anti-platelet activity (prevention of blood clotting), and furthermore it actively repairs the cells and membranes of the stomach lining.
By contrast, regularly using aspirin and its derived non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s) such as ibuprofen and diclofenac, are likely to irritate your stomach lining and can cause bleeding – possibly leading to ulceration. This can occur after relatively short-term regular use.
It should be noted here that meadowsweet, as with many other plant medicines, could interact with the commonly used pharmaceutical drug ‘warfarin’ (one of the many blood-thinning drugs in general use), and possibly increase the effects.
Meadowsweet is prized above all for its anti-inflammatory healing action on the upper digestive system, where it works in a much more holistic and gentle fashion than aspirin. The tannins, because of their general astringency, reduce excess acid production in the stomach.
The action of the tannins and salicylates relieves pain by reducing inflammation of the afflicted area. It cannot be over-stressed how much more beneficial this plant is compared to aspirin and the range of drugs now derived from aspirin. The apparent popularity and proclaimed anti-inflammatory effects of ‘Non Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs’ should not detract from the damage they can inflict on our bodies whilst purporting to be safe-to-use and effective medicines.
Meadowsweet has also widely been used in the treatment of both rheumatic and arthritic pain. The combination of diuretic and anti-inflammatory actions means meadowsweet can assist those joints where fluids commonly build up and aggravate already-painful bones.
Meadowsweet is also used as a diuretic for conditions of the urinary tract, and can help overweight people and those suffering from bloating due to water retention. It may also help gout.
Salicylates are included in many skin preparations to treat warts, due to their abilities to help slough skin epidermis cells more easily, to open clogged pores, neutralise bacteria, prevent pores clogging up again, and aiding new cellular growth.
‘Wintergreen’ (Gualtheria procumbens) is another plant with high concentrations of salicylates. Wintergreen is often recommended more highly as a topically applied ointment than meadowsweet by many qualified medical herbalists. It may well be that the product referred to was commercial ‘wintergreen oil’. This is now extracted from the distilled sap of the silver birch, which similarly contains high concentrations of salycilates. Birch trees now reportedly produce almost 90% of commercial ‘Wintergreen oil’.
As food, I will eat the very young leaves in salads during spring, regularly enjoying an-on-the-move ‘tapas’ in wet woodlands of wild garlic leaves, bittercress and young meadowsweet leaves. The leaves can quickly get tough and excessively astringent, so are at their prime as salad for me, as baby leaves.
When the summer is about to begin, and if you are lucky, or a dedicated forager, you will be able to find the last of the elderflowers with the first of the meadowsweet flowers and make a delightful ‘champagne’ drink with them. North facing and higher sites will prove fruitful here, as my discussion on where to forage, suggested.
Next time I will finally get round to posting a small study of cleavers…