Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Meadowsweet: Snippets of Interesting Things, Part 4

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

Meadowsweet is famous.  But we’ll get to that in a mo.  You’ll have seen this one about, its both prolific and beautiful, a lovely sight: frothy smallish  offwhite/cream coloured flowers, smelling of marzipan and tasting gently of almond according to James Wong, herbalist, ethno-botanist and author of the catchily titled Grow Your Own Drugs (2009), and of cucumber according to Jeff Cox and Marie Pierre-Moine, authors of The Herb Garden for Cooks (2010).  It’s a member of the Rose family.

It’s another hardy herbaceous perennial.  It grows between2-4 feet high and spreads about 2 feet outward when it’s growing happily in good dampish ground (it would like my garden).  Its leaves are darkish green, serrated and deeply veined, smelling of oil of wintergreen when crushed[1].

Meadowsweet has uses today even beyond its most famous one, and beyond its strong use in modern herbalism; it’s very handy in the kitchen.  Jekka McVicar has this to say: “both the leaves and flowers are edible. The flowers have a mild almond flavour[2] and can be added to stewed fruits, jellies and jams.  They are also good for flavouring meads and beers, and make an interesting wine.  Young spring leaves have a dry flavour and can be added to salads and soups.[3] 

The roots are also used for a black dye, to this day, in some UK textile factories; though meadowsweet is actually very versatile when it comes to being a dye, and depending on mordant, was used in Scotland in the past to create yellow (using the flowers; mordant: alum), reddish brown (using the root; mordant: ferrous sulphate) and a grey black (which utilised the flowers, not the root; and again, used ferrous sulphate as mordant)[4].

Usage in History

Meadowsweet has a long history of being used to flavour mead, especially in Scotland. Highland Wineries use still, for example.  Agnes Walker (2003) wrote a book on historical herb usage in Scotland, and has this:
Gerrard (1663) says that ‘the floures boiled in wine and drunk do maketh the heart merrie’.  According to Dickson and Dickson the old name for meadowsweet in southern Scotland literally means ‘mead plant’.  Extensive research into the types and proportions of pollen, found a sticky substance in a funerary beaker from a Bronze Age cist in Fife (dated 1250) that contained immature pollen from unpollinated flowers and mature pollen which could have been picked up by bees in making honey.  Other pollen grains found were common ingredients of honey.  This led them to conclude that the mixture must have contained a honey drink, perhaps fermented, flavoured with meadowsweet flowers. Experiments by a distillery firm showed that adding meadowsweet flowers to barley ale produced an ale that remained drinkable for months[5].

She adds that, culinarily speaking it was the favourite stewing herb of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, and among the nobles.  They also used it as one of their floor strewing herbs, as they found the release of the wintergreen oil on treading pleasant, especially in the winter months.  It was also used to scent linen and the flowers used for pot pourri[6].

Medicinal Uses, past and present

Culpeper waxes lyrical again over this one, another herb of Venus[7]:
It is used to stay all manner of bleedings, fluxes, vomitings, women’s menses, as also their whites; it is said to take away the fits of quartan agues[8] […]  it speedily helps those that are troubled with the cholic, being boiled in wine; and with a little honey, taken warm, it opens the belly; but boiled in red wine, and drunk, it stays the flux of the belly.  Being outwardly applied it heals old ulcers that are cancerous or eaten, or hollow and fistulous, for which it is by many much commended, as also for sores in the mouth and secret parts[9].

We’ll come now to why meadowsweet is famous.  It was traditionally used in the Highlands and Islands for treating fevers and headaches[10].  Meadowsweet contains a substance called salicylic acid, from which the Bayer Company in 1889, synthesized acetylsalicylic acid, the basis for what we now know as Aspirin[11]:
The main uses are for alimentary tract disorders and rheumatism.  Unlike aspirin, however, meadowsweet appears to be protective to the stomach lining while providing the anti inflammatory benefit.  There is documented scientific evidence for some of the antiseptic, anti-rheumatic and astringent actions, despite the absence of human clinical data[12].

Modern Herbalism Usage

The aerial parts are used in modern herbalism.  It’s thought preferable to aspirin, its synthesized cousin, because as a plant, it works in compound fashion, reducing the chances of a reaction of the stomach lining that aspirin can induce (aspirin = stronger, but rougher).  Meadowsweet contains more than just salicylic acid; it’s an essential oil with compounds called spiraeine and gualtherin, as well as tannin and citric acid (in other words, for the more nutritionist amongst you: flavonoids, oil, and phenolic glycosides).  It acts as an antacid, anti-emetic, astringent, anti-rheumatic, anti-inflammatory, and is thought of as:  “one of the best digestive remedies for holistic practitioners. It protects and soothes the mucous membranes of the digestive tract, reducing excess acidity and easing nausea.  It is used in the treatment of heartburn, hyperacidity, gastritis and peptic ulceration.  Its gentle astringency is useful for treating diarrhoea in children”[13].  Because it also acts as a mild diuretic, it can help with treating edema.  Bartram describes it as “the herbalists bicarbonate of soda”, explaining that the salicyclic acid is so potent because of its anti-thrombotic effect on the blood vessels[14].  Taken as a tincture, 1-4mls is recommended 3 times a day; whereas if taken as an infusion, 1-2tsp of the dried herb should be steeped for 10-15 minutes, again, for drinking 3 times a day, initially.  (Obviously, if you’re feeling all this applies to you, go see a proper Medical Herbalist, yes?)

 Taken from the goodly cooks at perrone.blogs.com

Magickal Uses, past and present

Said to be one of the three most sacred herbs of the Druids, the other 2 being watermint and vervain.[15]

Used as a suitable floral tribute at grave sites in the Bronze Age; shown by analysis of pollen grains found as far and wide as the Orkneys, Perthshire in the North, and Carmarthenshire, Wales in the West.  Druidically (by which I mean a mixture of attempted historical reconstruction and a range of sympathetic neo-pagan modern practices, as enacted by those members of OBOD or the BDO, for example), this is still the perfect herb for funerals, because its considered a rite of passage herb.  A herb journeying from one state to another, much like its traditional usage: from fever to normal temperature, from pain to placidity.  It was also “strewn before bridal couples”, giving it its other main folk name of ‘Bridewort’ or ‘Bride of the Meadow’[16]. 

Nowadays, this herb is often used in spells and charms to lift depression and promote peace, both within the person, and within a home or work environment.  Ellen Every Hopman maintains this is a herb of gentle love spells[17], calling for peaceful affection.  Cassandra Eason goes further, saying it “can bring lasting love, happiness and psychic awareness, especially about those who have wronged you and have malice in their hearts.  It is used for both gentle cleansing and healing, bringing peace within the self, warring factions and globally”[18]. I love the optimism!  That makes me want to carry some about with me forever (at the rate I annoy people; it might well be sensible!).

It’s particularly associated with Lammas, with women encouraged to wear garlands of Meadowsweet to join with the essence of the Goddess[19].  It can be foraged for from June onwards, through to Lammas time, when new growth should be picked – as if you’re planning on cooking or making a cordial with it (say), to honour the Goddess, the fresh new growth will contain more active ingredients and taste better.

Culinary Treats!

Since I seem to have gone all contrarily summery in the midst of November, I thought I’d finish this post with 2 brill recipes from ethno-botanist James Wong’s excellent home herbal remedy book A Year With James Wong (2010).  The first is for a pain relieving syrup (with a child friendly variant after, and one that you can also use if you think you may experience any irritation with the salicylic acid in meadowsweet).  The second is for a delightful sounding sorbet.  I can imagine eating this in winter despite how wonderfully summery it sounds, and with the added pain reliving ingredient…sounds good for a cold to me…

Take it away James!  Here on in, it’s all him till the end of the post…
Ehem, irrelevantly pretty ethno-botanist, James Wong 
(image from The Telegraph, thankyou)

Meadowsweet Cordial

James’s intro:
Sweet, fragrant, and with the power to relieve pain – it’s hard to see how a remedy could get any better.  This flowery syrup is based on the frothy blossoms of meadowsweet plants, traditionally used to treat headaches and fevers, and one of the plants from which aspirin was first derived[20].  The very word ‘aspirin’ comes from the plant’s old Latin name, Spiraea[21].  With a flavour like a fizzy cross between elderflower and marzipan, meadowsweet flowers can be found in damp meadows and along banks and ditches all over Britain.


1 lemon
10-20 meadowsweet flowerheads (pref. fresh)
180ml water
180g sugar


  1. Grate the rind from the lemon and squeeze the juice.  Place the lemon rind and juice with all the other ingredients in a stainless steel pan[22].  Bring gently to the boil, stirring occasionally, and the simmer for 10 minutes.
  2. Strain into one or two sterilized bottles and allow cooling before sealing.  (Its best to make small amounts of this recipe as the syrup can go mouldy within a week of opening.)  For a year round supply, simply pop a couple of bottles of the cordial in the freezer, where they will last for at least one year.

For Use:
Dilute with water for a refreshing drink.

Should not be given to children under 16.  Don’t take if pregnant or allergic to aspirin.

Keep in the fridge, and use within 1 week.  Or in the freezer for up to one year.

Child Friendly Variant:
For children aged 2-16, you can use other fragrant summer flowering herbs such as lemon balm or elderflower, instead of the meadowsweet.  Just substitute 3-4 heaped teaspoons of the fresh flowers for the meadowsweet, and follow the recipe above.

Meadowsweet and Peach Sorbet

pic from deli-cute-essen.blogspot.com - check for excellent vegan recipes
James’s Intro:
Pairing the pain-relieving properties of meadowsweet with the flavour of sweet summer peaches, this cooling fruity sorbet is a true guiltless pleasure.  (For the meadowsweet cordial component, see the recipe above.)

3 ripe peaches
1 orange
120ml meadowsweet cordial
2 egg whites

  1. Peel and stone the peaches and put them into the blender.
  2. Add the grated zest and juice of the orange, as well as the meadowsweet cordial, and whizz for a few seconds.
  3. Put in a plastic container and leave in the freezer until just beginning to freeze (about 1 hour, depending on your freezer).  Remove from the freezer and beat thoroughly.
  4. Whip the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the peach mixture and freeze until ready to eat.

Gorge on as required.

Should not be given to children under 16.  Don’t take is pregnant or allergic to aspirin.

Will keep up to 3 months in a sealed container in the freezer.

As for the last recipe, to make this child friendly, for ages 2-16, make the sorbet with lemon balm or elderflower cordial instead of the meadowsweet cordial.

(These recipes are both taken from: A Year With James Wong, by James Wong [London: Collins, 2010], pp.102-103 – and thankyou very much for them!  Yum!  I recommend all 3 of James Wong’s books – he writes very readably about basic safe home practice of herbalism.  He’s a great place to start if you’re interested in this topic.  Series 1 of his BBC programme, Grow Your Own Drugs was still available on Amazon when I last checked.  It’s often handy to see this sort of thing done, if it seems at all daunting.  Also check out his website, it has audio, and video clips from his programmes, too: http://www.jameswong.co.uk/)

Till Our Next Merry Meeting, people!  I’ll try and be more seasonal and do a wintery herb next time I do a herb post!!

And remember: just enjoy the info here; I’m not a doctor, I’m just an enthusiast – don’t go dosing yourself without a professional to hand!!

[1] Jekka McVicar, New Book of Herbs (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2004), p.161.
[2] That’s one point to James Wong in the taste test trial, then!
[3] McVicar, p.161.
[4] Agnes Walker, A Garden of Herbs: Traditional Uses of Herbs in Scotland (Scotland: Argyll Publishing, 2003), pp.94-97.
[5] Agnes Walker, A Garden of Herbs: Traditional Uses of Herbs in Scotland (Scotland: Argyll Publishing, 2003), pp.64-65.
[6] Walker, p.82.
[7] Though Ellen Evert Hopman views it as a herb of Jupiter.
[8] ‘Quartan ague’ = Malarial bacterias…
[9] Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (London: Arcturus, 2009), p.308.
[10] M. Beith, Healing Threads (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1995), p.67.
[11] Walker, p.35.
[12] For much discussion of this interesting angle and the sort of testing that has been done already, on meadowsweet and other herbs, see these 2 books: J. Barnes, L.A. Anderson and J.D. Phillipson, Herbal Medicines, A Guide for Health Care Professionals (London: The Pharmaceutical Press, 2002, 2nd edition), AND, C. Newall, L. Anderson and J.D. Phillipson, Herbal Medicines, A Guide for Health Care Professionals (London: The Pharmaceutical Press, 1996, 1st edition).
[13] David Hoffman, New Holistic Herbal (London: Element Books, 1990), p.215.
[14] Thomas Bartram, Bartram’s Encyclopaedia of Herbal Medicine (London: Constable and Robinson, 1998), p.287.
[15] Gwers of the Ovate Grade, 9, p.7, published by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), Lewes: 2011.
[16] Gwers of the Ovate Grade, 9, p.8, published by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), Lewes: 2011.
[17] Ellen Evert Hopman, A Druid’s Herbal of the Sacred Earth Year (Vermont: Destiny Books, 1995), p.99.
[18] Cassandra Eason, The Modern Day Druidess: A Practical Guide to Nature Spirituality, (London: Piatkus, 2003), p.134.
[19] Harold Pryce-Thorn, Miscellany of Superstition (London: Mondham and Son, 1902), p.7.
[20] The other one is Willow Bark.
[21] (This as you remember, is one of the active compounds within the meadowsweet plant.)
[22] This is one of the few herbal recipes that calls for a stainless steel pan; most will insist on enamel (you can get them from specialist cookshops) as it is completely neutral when it comes to simmering herbs for long periods, and there will be no hint of metallic flavour. (This recipe doesn’t have a long simmering time, hence ordinary pans are alright to use.)  Enamel also holds heat differently.  It’s the same idea as when trying to be authentic when cooking a Middle Eastern tagine, for example, and using a….Tagine (the clay cooking pot) as it distributes heat very evenly.

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