Meadowsweet – Miscellany of the 22 Botanicals

IN

Last autumn I went island hopping around Scotland with a fellow plant fan, a herbalist from Brighton.

One of my most treasured memories of that trip was hiring a car and travelling across mainland Orkney. Both self confessed plant nerds we found ourselves jumping for joy with each flash of colour we saw from the car window.  The predominate colours were the purple of rosebay willow herb and cream from the flowers of meadowsweet.

We stopped by the standing stones of Stenness and got picking, the meadowsweet was everywhere this “Queen of the ditch” was thriving on this island due to the wet weather conditions. It’s Ideal for the gardeners looking to grow something in that poorly drained corner of the garden. As we picked we both speculated as to the lineage of the plants we were harvesting. Did whoever put the stones here also have a thriving medicinal herb garden or perhaps they were brewers. We may never know, but what we did know is that this harvest would be used for both booze and medicine.

As Mark Williams points out there are many drinks uses for meadowsweet. The bittersweet flavour being perfect to add that little something to drink. He suggests infusing in vodka and this can be done either by half filling a kilner jar with flowers then topping up with filtered vodka, leaving for three days then straining through a muslin bag or using the same quantities and rapidly infusing with nitrous oxide in a cream whipper.

Once you have you meadowsweet vodka I’d suggest blending it with other flowered vodkas. My favourite has been creme de violet at a ratio of four:one (meadowsweet:violet). Then topping up with soda water for a refreshing summer drink. But spirits and cocktails are far from the traditional drinks that would have seen meadowsweet as a flavouring. Drinks like mead and ale were much more the happy homes for the aromas of meadowsweet.

Meadowsweet ale

Many recipes for meadowsweet ale include other herbs since the flavour can be considered too sweet. I’d suggest using any of the following (depending on what’s available), dandelion root, agrimony, yarrow, mugwort and heather.

Two simple recipes appear in Stephen Buhner’s brilliant, Sacred and Healing beer the first from Maude Grieve he has been adapted to become more of a molasses beer. Having brewed this I found that of the 20 people I gave a beer to 19 hated it and 1 (Mark Boyle) adored it I assume that he and Buhner must have similar tastes.

Molassess can be rather overpowering and therefore I’d suggest using dark malt extract as in the very simple recipe below.

Ingredients

  • 13 litres water/23 pints
  • 1kg/2.2lbs dark liquid malt extract
  • 1kg/2.2lbs light dried malt extract
  • 55g/2oz yarrow
  • 2 whole flowering dandelions (scrubbed)
  • 30g/1 (ish oz) dried meadowsweet flowers
  • 55g/2oz heather flowers
  • 1 packet Danstar Nottingham yeast

Method

Bring the water to the boil and stir in the malt extract then add the yarrow and dandelions. After 40 minutes add the meadowsweet and the heather flowers and boil for a further 20 minutes. Strain into a fermentation barrel and allow to cool to 21°c/70°f before adding the yeast.

After a week to fourteen days, when you are sure that fermentation has ceased, prime and bottle. This may even be a beer that helps you rid your hangover before it has began (see below).

Meadowsweet near water

Herbs such as pennyroyal would help repel ticks, bay can protect against moths

Meadowsweet as medicine

Meadowsweet contains salicylic acid the active chemical found in aspirin and we can date its use as a painkiller to at least 2000 BCE. Speculation suggests that we have been using it for longer as it is often a feature of ancient sites.

The famous herbalist Thomas Bartram declared meadowsweet to be, “the herbalists bicarbonate of soda”, and states countless uses for meadowsweet, just as doctors will recommend aspirin to relieve many symptoms too. Therefore it can be used in place of aspirin and I have even come across people allergic to aspirin to tolerate meadowsweet very well.

To take as a tea put 1-2 teaspoons of dried flowers into boiling water and infuse for 15 minutes. it can then be used as a anti-rheumatic, internal antiseptic and for anti-inflammatory illnesses. It is also said to be useful to treat, “foul breath” and flatulence which may come as very welcome relief for the partners of anyone suffering from such ailments.

Meadowsweet as a Strewing herb

Baths, showers and even quick sink baths have not always been as popular amongst the populace as they are now.  In medieval (12th-16th Century), Europe washing was closer to an annual than a daily affair as it is now. On top of that electricity was a few centuries away from being “invented” and so the plug in air freshener was still a long way off. This meant that houses would have stunk to high heaven.

Basic floors were strewn with reeds which also meant food, pet hair (and more) and anything else that ended up on the floor would stay amongst this decomposing mesh. A mesh that would stay unchanged for months if not years, thus making the stench even stronger.
In order to do something about the smell, and possibly to keep the insect population from expanding to ridiculous levels, herbs were strewn on the floor too. These herbs would be seasonal and would partly be chosen through opportunism.

Herbs such as pennyroyal would help repel ticks, bay can protect against moths and bog myrtle is mildly affective at repelling midges. Other herbs such as meadowsweet would have been strewn onto the floor as a natural air freshener. Having bought some back home from my island trip to dry I can see why it was used, it’s scent can readily fill a room and unlike many other fragrant herbs it seems to have a long “shelf life too”.

Read more about Meadowsweet >

An easy Meadowsweet recipe >

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