Dear Readers, it was such a delight to get back from Austria on Saturday, and to find the meadowsweet that I planted by the pond two years ago in flower. What a splendid plant this is! It has a honeyed scent that reminds me of hay, and it attracts all manner of hoverflies. The buds are almost square, and then the seed heads remind me of those fondant sweets that you can buy in posh places like Fortnum and Masons.
Although the garden as a whole has gone completely berserk during this past couple of years, I am very pleased with this spot, where the meadowsweet mixes with hemp agrimony, purple loosestrife and some self-seeded greater willowherb. It is a-buzz with bees and other pollinators, and they are all at head height so I can get a really good look. The fly above, for example, with his/her rather muscular ‘thighs’ reminds me of a mini weighlifter.
Anyhow, to return to meadowsweet. Although the plant likes damp places (and is often known as ‘queen-of-the-meadow’, the name might refer to ‘mead’ , as the flowers were used to flavour many kinds of drinks. It was also used as a strewing herb on floors and in mattresses. In my new favourite book, Vickery’s Folk Flora, it mentions that it was sometimes used on the floors of outside toilets, to disguise the smell.
In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey mentions that different parts of the plant have different scents: he describes the basic scent of the plant as being like marzipan, tinged with musk and honey in the flowers, but with the sharpness of pickled cucumber in the leaves. Mabey mentions that one ‘cynical namer’ believed that this was the difference between ‘courtship and matrimony’, but he was obviously married to the wrong person.
In spite of its sweet scent, Meadowsweet is yet another of those herbs that it was thought to be unlucky to bring into the house. One of these days I shall compile a list of all the wildflowers that are cause death and bad luck just by being picked and stuck in a vase. One alternative name for meadowsweet was ‘old man’s pepper’, with ‘old man’ being a name for the devil in many parts of the UK. Sniffing meadowsweet with too much enthusiasm was also thought to bring on fits.
In Wales, it is not only considered unlucky to bring it into the house (‘if a person falls asleep in a room where many of these flowers are placed, death is inevitable’), but it is also though to be dangerous to fall asleep in a field where there is an abundance of meadowsweet. However, there is also a legend in Wales that the magicians Gwydion and Math created a woman out of oak blossom, broom and meadowsweet, and called her Blodeuwedd, or ‘Flowerface’. She was created to be the wife of Lleu, who was cursed to never be able to marry a human wife, but had other ideas, and arranged for him to be murdered. This was no easy task:
‘ Blodeuwedd tricks Lleu into revealing how he may be killed, since he cannot be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. He reveals to her that he can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net, with one foot on a bath and one on a black goat, by a riverbank and by a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at Mass. With this information she arranges his death’.
However, Lleu is nursed back to health by the magicians who created Blodeuwedd in the first place, and she is turned into an owl for her pains. It just goes to show that crime never pays.
The legend was the inspiration for Alan Garner’s 1967 young adult novel ‘The Owl Service’, which explores what it mean to be Welsh, the class divide and the eternal power of stories. Well worth a read, even if you’re way past being a ‘young adult’.
Here, though, I’d like to back up a little and give some basics on the plant. Meadowsweet is native to the UK and can be found in damp spots throughout Europe and western Asia. It is also naturalised in some parts of North America. It is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae) which I would never have guessed, though the leaves do look a little rose-like.
The plant contains salicin, which is related to salicylic acid (aspirin) – in fact, the drug was named from the old botanical name for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria. Having just returned from Austria, I was interested to learn that the Austrians make a tea with meadowsweet, and use it for the treatment of painful conditions such as rheumatism and gout.
The Bronze Age burial sites of three humans and one animal at Fan Foel in Carmarthenshire, Wales, have contained the remains of meadowsweet, probably used as a strewing herb, and the signature of the plant has also been found in grave goods in Scotland from the same period, probably as a result of meadowsweet being used to flavour wine that was buried alongside the dead.
Meadowsweet has a reputation as a dye plant – the roots are supposed to give a black dye when used with a copper mordant (fixative). The genus name ‘Filipendula‘ relates to the way that the root tubers hang off of the fibrous roots (the Latin word means ‘hanging thread’). To read about various experiments using different parts of meadowsweet with different mordants, have a look at the wonderful ‘Wool Tribulations’ blog here
In addition to its obvious attraction for hoverflies, the leaves of meadowsweet are munched upon by no fewer than 16 species of moths, including the magnificent emperor moth (Saturnia pavonia). How excited I would be if one of these turned up!
The caterpillars are pretty magnificent too.
The leaves of meadowsweet can also be injured by the meadowsweet rust gall, which is a fungus which chemically induces a bright orange swelling on the mid rib of the leaf. It can cause serious problems in young plants, so I shall keep an eye open. The last thing I want is for my newly established meadowsweet patch to keel over.
And, of course, a poem. For those of you who haven’t come across the Scottish poet and writer Kathleen Jamie, I can heartily recommend her books ‘Findings and ‘Sightlines’, and her poetry collections ‘The Tree House’ and ‘The Overhaul’. I love her for many reasons, not the least of which was her piece about Robert MacFarlane’s book ‘The Wild Places’, called ‘A Lone Enraptured Male‘. If you haven’t read it, you can read it here. It made me roar with laughter and nod in agreement (and I speak as someone who loved MacFarlane’s recent book ‘The Underland’.
And here is her poem.
a drab psalm
hanging about them like haar,
not knowing the liquid
trickling from her lips
would seek its way down,
and that caught in her slowly
unravelling plait of grey hair
were summer seeds:
meadowsweet, bastard balm,
tokens of honesty, already
beginning their crawl
toward light, so showing her,
when the time came,
how to dig herself out —
to surface and greet them,
mouth young, and full again
of dirt, and spit, and poetry.