filipendula ulmaria, flower folklore, mabinogion, meadowsweet, meadowsweet folklore, medicinal uses of plants
Meadowsweet–Filipendula ulmaria; also known as Queen of the Meadow, Lady of the Meadow, Dollof, Bridewort.; Welsh – Brenhines y Weirglodd
Family:Rosaceae. Flowering: Late June to September.Distribution: Throughout the British Isles and Western Europe. Habitat: A wide variety of damp places- fens, marshy meadows, stream and riversides, wet rock ledges in mountain areas, but not in very acid bogs.
Meadowsweet is a perennial herb, has stems up to 120cm tall often reddish-tinged and dark green pinnate leaves. It bears delicate, graceful, creamy-white flowers that are tiny at 4-6mm across, but gathered in large numbers in dense irregularly-formed branched frothy ‘cymes’ or ‘corymbs’ at the stem apices. Leaves are dark green, pinnate, with deeply toothed ovate leaflets, pairs of larger ones (up to 8cm long) alternate up the leaf-stalk with pairs of tiny ones (1-4mm long). The terminal leaflet is usually 3-lobed.
The name ulmaria means “elmlike”. There is no visual resemblance to the elm tree (Ulmus) in any way, but in common with the bark of the slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) meadowsweet contains salicylic acid, which has long been used as a painkiller, and this may be the source of the name. The generic name, Filipendula, derives from filum, meaning “thread” and pendulus, meaning “hanging.” This is thought to describe the root tubers that hang characteristically on the genus, on fibrous roots.
Importance to insects
Meadowsweet is moderately attractive to bees, including bumblebees. The plants play host to numbers of aphids, leafhoppers, mites and caterpillars, so in turn is very attractive to predator insects and spiders, including both crab and jumping spiders; soldier beetles that eat aphids and other insects; plant bugs that prey on leaf beetles; ladybirds and ichneumonid wasps, parasitic wasps that prey on beetles and caterpillars.
Historical and Traditional uses
Meadowsweet has a long history of use by humans. Traces of it have been found with the cremated remains of three people and at least one animal in a Bronze Age cairn at Fan Foel, located in Carmarthenshire, West Wales. It is thought that this may have been either from a honey-based mead or flavoured ale placed with food as nourishment for the passed ones onward journey, or that the plant had been placed on the grave as a scented flower. The whole plant has a pleasant taste and flavour, and was venerated by the Druids for flavouring mead. It is still used for this purpose in some Scandinavian varieties of mead. It has also been used to flavour wine, beer, and many vinegars. The flowers can be added to stewed fruit and jams, imparting a subtle almond flavour.
When it was customary to strew floors with rushes and herbs, both to give warmth underfoot and to overcome smells and infections, Meadowsweet was a favoured choice as the leaves are aromatic as well as the flowers, and was reputedly the favourite herb of Queen Elizabeth 1 for that purpose.
A natural black dye can be obtained from the roots.
There is some fascinating folklore based around this plant. In some parts of the country it was believed that the heavy scent of the flowers had the power to induce a deep sleep from which a person would never wake. Its sweetness, perhaps not unexpectedly, made it unlucky to bring indoors, and redolent with death; possibly linked to its use as ‘grave’ flower.
The old custom of strewing at weddings gave rise to the alternative name of “bridewort”; the flowers were also used in bridal garlands. Cynics maintained that the plant symbolised courtship and matrimony because of the changing scent of the flower before and after bruising!
In Welsh Mythology, according to the Mabinogion, Gwydion and Math created a woman out of oak blossom, broom, and meadowsweet and named her Blodeuwedd (“flower face”).
Another valued attribute of the plant was that if it was laid on water on St.John’s Day, (most probably June 24th, Midsummer’s Day), it would reveal a thief; a woman if the plant floated, a man if it sank.
Meadowsweet has many medicinal properties and a long history as a healing herb. This plant contains the chemicals used to make aspirin, a small section of root, when chewed is a good natural remedy for relieving headaches.The whole plant is a traditional remedy for an acidic stomach.
Chemical constituents include salicylic acid, flavone glycosides, essential oils, and tannins.
Importantly, 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).