Herb to Know: Meadowsweet

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Rick Wetherbee

Genus:Filipendula ulmaria

• Hardy to Zone 2

Meadowsweet is an appealing herb in many ways: In the garden, it gives off a pleasant wintergreen and sweet almond fragrance, and its wrinkled, dark-green leaves with 3-foot reddish stalks delight the senses. But the herb is probably best known for its chemical components, which have made it popular throughout history as a remedy for aches and fever.

Meadowsweet was the key headache-busting ingredient from which aspirin was synthesized; Bayer Pharma-ceuticals used dried meadowsweet leaves for its original methyl salicylic acid formulation. In Colonial times, meadowsweet was used as an anti-inflammatory to reduce the symptoms of arthritis and rheumatism. And, because the herb is gentle on the stomach, it also was used to treat stomach upsets, feverish colds, diarrhea and heartburn. Meadowsweet belongs to the rose family (Rosaceae), and was Queen Elizabeth I’s favorite strewing herb. The 16th-century herbalist Gerard believed it outranked all other strewing herbs because its aromatic leaves didn’t cause headaches, unlike many other strongly scented leaves. Meadowsweet’s popularity as a strewing herb at weddings earned it its alternate name, bridewort.

And throughout history, meadowsweet has maintained its usefulness in the home. Housewives used the plant in their cleaning routine, drying clusters of tiny white florets and placing them on the floor and in cabinets to mask unpleasant odors. Cooks used the herb to flavor beers, meads and wines and added it to soups for an interesting almond flavor. As a cosmetic, it was soaked in rainwater and used as astringent and skin conditioner.

This European native perennial grows in many parts of the world, including North America, where it is appreciated more for its medicinal uses than as a garden plant.

Plants grown in organically enriched, well-watered soil will produce a healthy rhizome. Meadowsweet is a good candidate to grow in moist meadows or near bodies of water, where the herb blooms from June through August. And while the versatile herb can grow in full or partial sun, in boggy soil where summers are cool, or in latitudes where summers are warm to hot, meadowsweet does require some attention. It reacts well to heavy compost at least once each season. And if leaves become tattered in the summer, severely prune them and keep soil moist until new leaves emerge.

Use fresh leaves to flavor sorbets and fruit salads. You can infuse the flower to make a mild diuretic tea. Meadowsweet has a sharp flavor, somewhat like burnet, so you can drop a leaf into a cup of claret wine and enjoy the bite it offers. When making tea, cover the brew and let it steep to bring out the salicylic acid before serving to guests. No one will leave with a headache.

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