Meadowsweet is in bloom along the hedgerow and it lends a distinctive, clean fragrance to the air. I was out for a run this morning, and deeply appreciative for the tonic of its aroma. In fact, this is probably the one quality we most associate with meadowsweet: its heavy scent. Many of us have heard how meadowsweet was added to the rushes, which were strewn on the floor, to freshen the space (the rushes doing the hard job of insulation, moisture control, and padding). Here in Ireland, it was known as Airgead Luachra, which means Rush Silver… or silver rushes. They are fairly tall plants that bloom in summer and have reddish stems with dark green leaves and distinctive creamy flower heads.
Now, whether you covered your floor in these pungent flowers might depend on where you lived and what the local folklore was. Generally in Ireland, it was believed the scent was perilous, because it could cause a person to fall into a deep and possibly fatal sleep.(1) Though, in west county Galway it was believed that if a person was pining or wasting away because of interference from *the Good Neighbours* that putting meadowsweet under their bed would ensure a cure by morning. (2)
Meadowsweet had another name in Irish, Crios Conchulainn (Cuchulainn’s belt), but I am not sure why or where this arose. Perhaps connected, is its association, along with watermint and vervain, as being one of three of the most sacred herbs to the druids. (3)
So, on to herbal uses. As I understand it, the english name comes from the Anglo-Saxon meodu-swete (mead-sweetener) and, you guessed it, was used to flavour mead, beer, wine, and probably anything they were making. A wonderful little herbalist named Gerard once said, “the smell thereof makes the heart merrie and joyful and delighteth the senses.” In Ireland it was used to clean milk vessels and was mixed with coperas (ferrous sulphate) to make a black dye. According to another herbalist, K’eogh, a powder made from the roots was effective in preventing diarrhoea and dysentry, and an infusion of the flowers was good for curing fevers. (4) It was also widely used as a cure for colds, sore throats and other pains, no doubt due to its salicylate content, which is similar to aspirin. (In fact, I have heard that the acid was a disinfectant so it not only made rooms smell better but helped the fight against bacteria. Its painkilling and anti-inflammatory uses were beneficial but hard on the stomach, and it was only after it was synthesised that it become an acceptable candidate for mass production and sold in tablet form as ‘aspirin’ – ‘a’ for acetyl and ‘ –spirin’ for Spirea, the original botanical name for Meadowsweet). People in counties Cavan and Sligo reportedly used it for dropsy and kidney trouble, while those in westmeath preferred to use it as a tonic for nerves.
In traditional western herbalism the plant is ruled by Jupiter (Thursday) and is associated with the zodiac sign Pisces.
1. Ui Chonchubhair, M., Flora Chorca Dhuibhne: Aspects of the Flora of Corca Dhuibhne.
2. Vickery, R., A Dictionary of Plant Lore
3. M. Seymour, A Brief History of Thyme
4. Williams, N., Díolaim Luibheanna
5. Allen & Hatfield, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition