Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
Meadowsweet grows abundantly around Eastville Park lake, and can also be found in Wickham Glen by the river. Several years ago, the meadowsweet, comfrey and other plants were being strimmed by the Council before they had a chance to flower. I took three Council Parks employees round the area and showed them which plants should be left to flower before cutting – they were very knowledgeable about the plants, and since then they are leaving them until the autumn. Some people say it’s too overgrown and scruffy now, so if that was my doing I apologise!
Here’s a bit of chemistry for those who are interested: salicylic acid was first prepared from meadowsweet in 1838, and subsequently synthesised by the German chemist Kolbe in 1860. The synthesis of acetylsalicylic acid in 1899 by Bayer resulted in aspirin – the name derives from the older Latin name for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria. Salicylic acid derivatives can be found in willow and poplar bark, viburnum species and wintergreen, as well as meadowsweet. Rub the leaves of meadowsweet and the smell may remind you of ointments like Germaline, used to relieve muscular aches and pains. The flowers smell very different – their fragrance is similar to almond.
While aspirin may occasionally cause gastric upset, meadowsweet is used to relieve stomach inflammations like gastritis, peptic ulcers, indigestion and heartburn. It can also help with diarrhoea in children, and is used for the rheumatic pains of joints and muscles, and for gout. In addition, it can help with mild urinary infections, and can be beneficial if you have hardening of the arteries. However, if you are sensitive to aspirin then we still advise caution.
Meadowsweet is a member of the Rose family, and can grow up to 120 cm. It grows abundantly in swampy ground, meadows, fens, wet woods and by rivers, and is pollinated by bees. It has a long flowering period, from June to September. If you take the train from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon and beyond you can see swathes of it near the railway line.
In the past it was used as a strewing herb to freshen the home. Gerard writes that “the smell thereof makes the heart merrie and joyful and delighteth the senses”. It was also an ingredient in mead, and was a specific medicine for fevers. When decocted in ordinary white wine it improves the flavour and settles the stomach.
Some excellent recipes are to be found in the book Hedgerow Medicine, by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal – though as with any wild plants, you should take care only to harvest where they grow plentifully, and only to take small quantities.
Sources: The constituents of medicinal plants, by Andrew Pengelly. A modern herbal, by Mrs M Grieve. The medicinal flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe by Julian Barker. The wild flower key, by Francis Rose