The flowers of Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), are a common sight throughout the British Isles from June to August. The plant thrives in damp locations, such as meadows, woodland, and marshy ground, and grows to a height of between one and four feet tall, with its five-petalled creamy-white flowers borne above dark green foliage.
Meadowsweet has two distinctive and very different aromas, which were reflected in its archaic, north-country name of “courtship and matrimony”. The heady, sweet smell of the flowers were said to represent courtship, whereas the sharper, more pungent scent of the crushed leaves symbolised the reality of married life. In medieval times, freshly cut meadowsweet was strewn on floors as a means of masking unpleasant smells, and it was, apparently, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. The name meadowsweet would appear to accurately describe the plant, given the sweet scented flowers and its favoured growing locations, but the name is in fact a corruption of the old medieval name “meadesweet”, stemming from the days when the plant was added during the brewing of mead, as a flavouring agent.
Various parts of the plant have been used medicinally for centuries, primarily for the relief of pain and fever, but other uses have included the treatment of gastrointestinal complaints, including peptic ulceration, and the treatment of diarrhoea. Its anti-inflammatory effects can be accounted for by the fact that all parts of the plant contain several salicylate compounds, including salicylic acid itself. In 1897, when Felix Hoffmann produced acetylsalicylic acid, he used salicin produced from meadowsweet plants. This led to the development of the brand name Aspirin, which was derived from the botanical name at the time for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria.
Research has demonstrated immunomodulatory properties of meadowsweet preparations extracted from both the flowers and roots of the plant. All parts of the plant contain high levels of phenolic compounds, including a newly discovered flavonoid glycoside, named ulmarioside, which is unique to Filipendula ulmaria. Ethyl acetate extracts were shown to inhibit both T-cell proliferation and complement cascade activation, therefore inhibiting the immune response. They also inhibited the production of reactive oxygen species. All of these processes play a part in the inflammatory response, and explain the effectiveness of meadowsweet preparations in the treatment of inflammatory conditions. In one clinical study, meadowsweet was incorporated into an ointment and shown to be an effective treatment for cervical dysplasia.
Because of the high levels of salicylates, preparations containing meadowsweet extracts are contraindicated in patients taking warfarin, and also in those already taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Extracts of the plant have been to cause bronchospasm, therefore caution is advised in its use by asthma sufferers.
1) MJ Kruglova, DN Olennikov, DS Kruglov. New flavonoid glycoside and other components taken from Filpendula genus plants, Planta Med 2013; 79-PJ27
2) Barnes J, Anderson LA, Phillipson JD. 2007. Herbal Medicines. 3rd edition. London: Pharmaceutical Press.
3) Beukelman CJ, Halkes SBA, Kroes BH, Labadie RP, Van den Berg AJJ, Van Dijk H. In Vitro Immunomodulatory Activity of Filipendula ulmaria. Phytotherapy Research 1997; 11: 518-520.