By James Duncan
Learning & Engagement Officer
Should you happen to wander alongside a stream, you may become aware of a rather sweet fragrance, that of the dainty Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). This common plant's wispy, foaming blooms may well be spotted in wet grassland, wet woodland and marshes as it favours the dampest of conditions. Flowering from June to August, it's often the distinctively heady marzipan-like smell that first announces the presence of this delicate perennial, a scent some may consider errs slightly on the sickly side. Either way, it's certainly an aroma that draws you in for a closer look at its attractive flat-topped flower-heads, known as cymes. A member of the Rose family (Rosaceae), the naming of Meadowsweet may seem to describe it rather accurately. However it's a touch misleading as it derives from a corruption of the Medieval name 'meodu-swete', referencing its use for flavouring 'mead', the Anglo-Saxon alcoholic beverage of choice - made from fermented honey, yeast and water.
Meadowsweet has in fact seen an extensive range of uses throughout the Middle Ages, often strewn across floors as a natural insecticide to repel fleas and lice and to perfume the air - it was even favoured by Queen Elizabeth I for use in her chambers. Somewhat ironically, when its foliage is crushed or broken the scent changes from pleasant to distinctly medicinal, perhaps more representative of disinfectant than anything else. It has some truly remarkable medicinal properties, containing substances that serve as an effective remedy for a number of aches, pains and ailments. It happens to comprise a substantial amount of Salicylic acid, which when synthesised in 1897 became something with which we're a whole lot more familiar, a rather useful modern-day painkiller - aspirin. Seems suitably appropriate for a plant that may bear an aroma resembling a hospital.
Coined as 'Queen of the Meadow' by Tudor Botanist John Gerard, Meadowsweet may indeed dominate and carpet a lowland wet meadow, spreading by means of its tough, tuberous roots. These serve as a useful means of controlling soil erosion, whilst the frothing flowers have significant value to wildlife, attracting a range of pollen-loving insects such as bees, thrips (Thysanoptera) and flies - though the wind plays a role in its pollination as well. Meadowsweet also provides a vital resource for a number of moth species, with the larvae of the Emperor, Hebrew Character, Mottled Beauty and Fox Moth utilising it as a food-plant.
Meadowsweet © Derek Middleton