(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 18, 2011. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
When I was told that Queen Elizabeth I favored meadowsweet above all others for strewing on the floors of her chambers, I had to have a basket full of it. That sweet, almond-flavored scent was a cure for my every nightmare! It didn't matter that my mother discovered it all over my floor when she brought my clean laundry up and I had to continually sweep my room, I just simply kept the swept up debris in the trash can beside my bed. When I thought the coast was clear, I'd do it again. I had to have a lot of nightmares before she was convinced to let me take care of my own room. But I had to bring my own laundry up if I wanted clean clothes. I thought it a fair exchange.
Filipendula ulmaria grows in wet soils and moist woods. It was introduced from Europe and now grows wild from Newfoundland, south to Virginia and then northwest to Ohio. It graced the edges of our cliffs at home in the mountains of southeast Kentucky. It is a stout perennial growing up to six feet tall, and has a creeping underground stem (rhizome) with fleshy nodules. The leaves are pinnately compound with oval, toothed green leaflets that are gray-white, hairy, and prominently veined below. The terminal leaflet has three lobes. Tiny, fragrant, cream-white, five petaled flowers bloom from June through August and grow in terminal clusters. To me the flower clusters look a little like disorganized baby's breath.
I want you to be able to see the mountains as I saw them. There was a small one-lane road that wound up the hollow where I lived. In most places on that one lane road, you could stand right in the weedy middle of it and reach your arms straight out and touch a mountain on each side. Of course, I was never big enough to actually reach either side, but when the bushes were in their full growth, I could touch them. Now, if you looked straight up on either side, the foliage looked dark. The meadowsweet bloomed in white clusters against the dark green foliage that surrounded it. And wasn't that beautiful! It was the same when the dogwoods or redbuds bloomed, stark white and pinkish red against the dark bark of the trees or the dark green of the cedars. It is no wonder I loved those mountains. I always thought it must be great to be a tree, because they were never alone surrounded as they were by all their friends.
In addition to being a medicinal plant, meadowsweet sports quite a history. Its Latin name, Ulmaria, means elm-like. It doesn't resemble the elm, but it does contain salicylic acid, which has long been used as a painkiller. As I already mentioned, the whole plant was know for centuries as a strewing herb, flowers on their stems were strewn on floors to give the whole room a pleasant aroma. I loved the idea of living just like a queen in a flower strewn room, as long as my mother didn't decide that my imagination needed to be reined in again. My great Aunt Bett made all kinds of decoctions from the plant, so it did also have its practical uses. And its flowers could also be added to stewed fruit and jams, giving them a subtle almond flavor.
Aunt Bett used the whole plant as a remedy for stomach aches, usually as a tea, which didn't have an unpleasant taste. In her writings she states that the fresh root could be used for other remedies, and flowers made into a tea was a good drink for those who suffered from flu symptoms. I was never one of her test patients, at least I don't remember being one. That's probably a good thing since I loved the scent so much I might have overdosed. Too much of a good thing is not always the best.
The white-flowered meadowsweet has been found with the cremated remains of three people and at least one animal in a Bronze Age cairn in Europe. In Welsh mythology Gwydion and Math created a woman out of oak blossoms, broom, and meadowsweet and named her Blodeuwedd, which means "flower face". If I could have pronounced that word, I might have changed my name. In Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale", it is known as meadowort and was one of the ingredients in a drink called "save". It is also known as bridewort because it was strewn in churches for festivals and weddings and even made into bridal garlands. I remember trying that one time when I was playing bride. I used a crochet tablecloth, fit for a bride I thought, and I wove a garland of meadowsweet that would hold the tablecloth/wedding veil on my head. I thought I made a beautiful bride, and all was well until I decided my dog Pepper might be a beautiful bride, too. She didn't seem to like the idea of being a bride because when I draped the crochet tablecloth over her head and around her body, then crowned her with the wreath of flowers, she took off like a mad dog and raced up the mountainside with that table cloth streaming behind. That story did not have a happy ending, so it's best if we don't discuss it at any great length here. I remember having to sit on a pillow for a while after that event. It was a prized tablecloth.
The active ingredients in meadowsweet are compounds of salicylic acid and tannins. In 1897 Felix Hoffman created a synthetically altered version of salicin, derived from the species, which caused less digestive upset than the pure acid. The new drug was named aspirin by Hoffman's employer Bayer. This gave rise to the class of drugs known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID).
Isn't it strange the things we can learn from the simplest of nature's gifts? I never looked at plants for their medicinal value, though that is how I learned about them when I was very young. I look at them differently now. On the other hand, whenever I see a meadowsweet bush, I still remember that crochet tablecloth that I wore as a wedding veil.
I thought I looked quite beautiful in it, with my ripped blue jeans, multicolor dyed t-shirt, and walnut stained fingers.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Kennedyh, CaptMicha, and PerennialGirl.