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Wild wanders with Fiona Hall: The frothing foam of meadowsweet

In the latest of our 'Wild Wanders' guide series, our Biodiversity Consultant Fiona Hall talks about Queen Elizabeth I's favourite herb - meadowsweet.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) is a tall, sweet-smelling flower that loves growing in damp areas.

Where I live in Angus, it can be found around the base of old wells, towards the bottom of overgrown slopes, and on the edges of rivers, ponds and lochs.

It is a perennial herb and a member of the rose family. It’s native to most of Europe and western Asia, and now also grows as a naturalised plant in North America, having been introduced there long ago.

Meadowsweet typically grows between one and two metres tall. In Scotland, it usually flowers in late June, and keep flowering right through into September. The flowers form attractive creamy white clusters - from far away they look like frothing foam or billowing clouds.

As the name suggests, when in bloom meadowsweet gives off a sweet, almond-like scent.

The foliage of the plant is dark green on top, with whitish, hairy undersides. The leaves are divided into pairs of leaflets and run through by deep veins.

As they grow, meadowsweet leaves can develop a bright, rust-coloured orange covering. This is actually a type of fungus, called (appropriately!) meadowsweet rust fungus.

Is meadowsweet good for wildlife?

Yes - meadowsweet flowers provide valuable nectar for flies, moths and certain other pollinating insects.

It is also the food plant for the larvae of various moth species, including the Emperor moth (below), the Mottled Beauty moth and the Hebrew Character moth.

Is meadowsweet useful to us?

Throughout history, the sweet smell of the flowers has encouraged people to put them on display in their houses. However, if crushed, the flowers can smell more like antiseptic - and a little goes a long way!

Meadowsweet contains salicylic acid, which some people use as a skin exfoliant or toner.

The flowers of meadowsweet are sometimes used to make sparkling wine or beer - or to give jams a subtle almond flavour.

Here’s a recipe for meadowsweet sparkling wine

Perth winemaker Cairn o’ Mohr also makes this delicious meadowsweet cider!

During the spring, the youngest leaves can be eaten raw or cooked as a green, though I hear the flavour is somewhat medicinal.

In small quantities, meadowsweet should not cause any ill-effects. However, it is UNSAFE to ingest this plant if you are pregnant. There is some evidence it could make the uterus contract, potentially causing a miscarriage. In addition, not enough is known about the safety of using it during breast-feeding – so it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid.

Always be careful and do your own research before ingesting any wild plants. This Eat Weeds guide to foraging meadowsweet is a good starting point.

Meadowsweet in myth and history

Meadowsweet is also known as mead wort, queen of the meadow (because it can dominate a low, damp meadow area), meadow wort, lady of the meadow, dollof, meadsweet and bridewort (it was often strewn in churches for festivals and weddings, and made into a garland for the bride).

Meadowsweet was a great favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. Apparently, she desired it above all other herbs, and wanted there to always be some in her chambers.

According to the Victorian Language of Flowers, meadowsweet is a herb that symbolises uselessness.

Why not gather a bunch for your home, and dedicate it to the housemate (or partner) who avoids doing the dishes…

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