Written by Julia Russell, Herbalist and Forager
For info about foraging, read the column: First Forays into Foraging
When elderflower fades from the hedgerow, another creamy-coloured bloom takes up the baton, this time in damper locations. Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) forms in clumps in ditches, fringes sunny riverbanks and canals and sways in marshy meadows, hence one of its other common names, Queen of the Meadow.
Illustration by Megan Bowyer.
A perennial with long flowering stems that can grow over a metre high, topped with irregularly-branched densely-clustered inflorescences which appear fluffy from a distance. Each flower has 5 petals and like many other plants in the Rosaceae family, it has a distinct fragrance which you may smell on the breeze from mid-summer onwards.
Its long-stalked leaves have 2-5 pairs of toothed leaflets each, small leaflets in between and 3- or 5-lobed terminal leaves. These leaves, dark green above, have a white downy underside. Both flower and leaf stems start green and tend to redden with age.
Do stop and smell these flowers – the scent is a mixture of almond and vanilla. Meadowsweet flowers, both fresh and dried, have versatile food uses – flavouring a range of drinks, especially mead, creating a pleasant infused vinegar, and making a fragrant syrup from fresh flowers – just two teaspoons of flowers infused into 1 litre liquid on low-heat will yield a strongly-flavoured addition for baking and desserts.
As well as being utilised as flavouring, Meadowsweet was a traditional strewing herb, scattered on floors to freshen the air and act as an insect repellent.
The dried flowers and leaves are a simple folk remedy in infusion or tinctured in alcohol. Owing to the plant’s salicylic acid content and anti-inflammatory and astringent qualities, historically it has been used medicinally in pain relief, to reduce fevers, for stomach and intestinal complaints, and relieving stiff and painful joints.
NB Avoid Meadowsweet if you are allergic to aspirin.