Herb of the month: Meadowsweet

Last update: 14.07.17 First posted: 13.07.17 by in

For me, there can be only one herb for July: meadowsweet. You can see it springing up along the towpath now, blossoming in a creamy froth of almond-scented flowers. This herb not only looks beautiful and smells delicious, it also gives us one of our most valuable medicines: aspirin, named after the old botanical name for the herb, spiraea.

The folk names for these flowers tell us a lot about the long history of its use: ‘bridewort’ and ‘courtship and matrimony’ because it was traditionally picked for bridal bouquets and used to decorate churches for weddings, and ‘meadwort’ because it was used to flavour mead and wine. Chaucer refers to ‘meadwort’ in The Knight’s Tale, and lists it as one of the ingredients in a drink called ‘save’. The flowers are still used today to add flavour to some summer ales.

Over in the Apothecary Garden, you will find meadowsweet growing in the Elizabethan strewing-herbs bed. The sweet scent of the flowers made it a popular choice for strewing the floors of banqueting halls. According to Elizabethan herbalist John Gerard, ‘the smell thereof makes the heart merrie and joyful and delighteth the senses.’ It was said to be the favourite strewing-herb of Queen Elizabeth I, who desired it above all other herbs in her chambers.

The history of meadowsweet goes back much further than the time of Queen Elizabeth, or even Chaucer: it is one of the most ancient medicinal herbs of this island. Traces of the flowers have been found in Bronze Age cairns in Wales and Scotland. In Welsh mythology, meadowsweet was one of the three flowers used by Gwydion and Math to create Blodeuedd, the woman of flowers. And Gaelic tales tell us that Cuchulain’s raging temper was soothed by a bath of meadowsweet, after which he always wore the flower on his belt, giving rise to its Gaelic name: Crios Chù Chulainn – the belt of Cuchulain.

But the most significant story of this herb, for herbalists and healers, begins in 1897 when Felix Hoffman used the plant to create a new drug: acetylsalicylic acid, commonly known as aspirin. This was found to have the same anti-inflammatory effect as the salicin extracted from willow bark, but with much less upset to the digestive system. Unlike the extracted acetylsalicylic acid in the aspirin you can buy at the chemist, however, meadowsweet does not have an irritating effect on the stomach. In fact, herbalists often use meadowsweet to treat acid indigestion and stomach ulcers.

If you are prone to indigestion, you can make an infusion of meadowsweet by steeping the flowers in freshly boiled water and straining the liquid – just like making loose-leaf tea. Drink this hot or cold, before or after meals, with a little bit of honey for sweetness. It tastes delicious, and gives you all the soothing, digestive, anti-inflammatory benefits of this magical herb. Meadowsweet flowers can also be made into a cordial, just like elderflowers.

Please remember that, as a natural source of aspirin, this herb should be avoided by anyone who should not be taking aspirin. And when you are picking the flowers, be sure to leave plenty for the bees!

Sources:

www.napiers.net/meadowsweet-the-aspirin-plant.

www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/m/meadow28

www.skyecomuseum.co.uk/culture-language

Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal, Hedgerow Medicine

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