Known as the honey-wine herb, meadowsweet has been a trusted brewing (and strewing) herb since medieval times, used to flavor the nectar of kings – mead. It’s a gardening favorite and was once must-have among medieval brides and royalty, who enjoyed the sweet almond fragrance of the dried flowers strewn on the floor as well as in wreaths and garlands. In addition, meadowsweet is an herb with natural headache preventive and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as many other potential health benefits. Keep reading to learn how meadowsweet may support your natural health goals!
What is Meadowsweet?
Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), also called Meadwort or Queen of the Meadow, is an herbaceous upright perennial considered more of a shrub than a wildflower. Native to Europe and Western Asia, it is part of the genus Spiraea and the family Rosaceae – in the same family as the rose. (1, 2)
Meadowsweets fragrant, creamy white flowers bloom on fluffy stalks during the summer, flourishing in full sun to partial shade, and are typically cultivated and dried for various purposes in mid-summer. The plant’s leaves are narrow and serrated with pale green, sparsely hairy undersides and medium green upper sides. Meadowsweet can grow between 3 to 6 feet high and spread 1 to 3 feet wide, thriving in moist or wet soil, such as marshland, meadows, swamps, and alongside rivers. (3, 4)
As a hermaphroditic plant with both male and female organs, meadowsweet can reproduce by itself or is commonly pollinated by bees. The nectar and pollen from the flowers also attract wasps, adult long-horned beetles, moths, birds, and various other wildlife. (5) Not only is meadowsweet a sturdy and low maintenance addition to almost any garden, it can be cut for its flowers and used for decorative purposes or in a potpourri. Other varieties of the plant are found growing in North America and feature beautiful pink blooms. There are also petite varieties that only reach 2 to 3 feet tall. (6)
The edible parts of meadowsweet include its leaves, flowers, and tuberous roots. The roots are the least commonly used but can be cooked and eaten or extracted to make brown dye. Most often, the aerial (above-ground) parts of meadowsweet, such as the flowers and young leaves, are used to flavor teas, syrups, sorbets, salads, soups, or alcoholic beverages. Specifically, meadowsweet is an ingredient in a type of herbal-infused mead, or honey wine. The aerial parts are also used in herbal formulations for health support – especially for the upper respiratory system, digestive system, joints, urinary tract, and immune system – available in liquid extracts, capsules, teas and more, for adults and children alike. (7)
How Does It Work?
The most active ingredients in meadowsweet are phenolic glycosides (the most important being salicylates), essential oils, flavonoids, and tannins. (8)
The salicylates in meadowsweet are salicin, salicylaldehyde, and methyl salicylate, which become salicylic acid – a type of phenolic acid – in the digestive tract and are produced in its flowers to protect the plant from insects. Salicylates have natural pain relieving qualities that are used to dull symptoms related to headaches, fevers, aches and pains, and inflammation or swelling. (9, 10) Aspirin, also known as acetylsalicylic acid, or ace, was synthesized in the 1890s from the flower heads of meadowsweet and introduced to the market by the German dye manufacturer Friedrich Bayer & Co. It is an orally administered non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used in the treatment of mild to moderate pain that is well tolerated by most people. (11, 12)
“Salicylates, especially aspirin, but also salicylic acid itself … are important medically because of their analgesic (pain relieving), anti-inflammatory, and antipyretic (fever reducing) properties.” (13) However, some people are allergic to salicylates, and they may trigger asthma symptoms or drug interactions. “Unlike the extracted aspirin, which can cause gastric ulceration at high doses, the combination of constituents in meadowsweet act to protect the inner lining of the stomach and intestines while still providing the anti-inflammatory benefits of aspirin.” (14)
The essential oil extracted from meadowsweet flowers is used in perfumes, herbal infusions, skin care products, and aromatherapy. The most important flavonoids in meadowsweet oil – rutin, quercetin, and kaempferol – help attract pollinating insects, protect the plant against environmental stress and microbial infection, and regulate cell growth. (15) In addition, the flowers also contain anticoagulant compounds that protect against blood clots. (16)
Meadowsweet also contains tannins, also called tannic acids, are water-soluble polyphenols naturally found in the roots and leaves. They are acidic, have an astringent taste, and are pale-yellow to light-brown in color. The tannins are used to tan leather, dye fabric, make ink, and make wine and beer. They are also found in tea. (17) Tannins have antioxidant and anti-microbial properties, which help protect against cellular damage and serve as a natural defense mechanism against microbial infections. They also support blood clotting, help maintain healthy blood pressure levels already within the normal range and help promote a healthy internal response. (18)
A Brief History of Meadowsweet
The traditional, historical use of the wild meadowsweet flower was as a decorative, fragrant strewing herb that was tossed on the floor to give rooms a pleasant aroma. It was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, and it was often used at weddings when it was weaved into bridal bouquets and garlands, giving it the nickname Bridewort. In the home, women placed clusters of the dried flowers in cabinets to mask odors. (19, 20, 21)
Since the medieval times, meadowsweet has also been a brewing herb used to flavor mead, along with honey and water fermented with yeast. In the Middle Ages, mead, also called metheglin, was similar to sparkling table wine. People would drink wine glasses full of an infusion of 1 oz of the dried herb in a pint of water sweetened with honey. It was considered the drink of kings throughout European history and was often referred to in great literature such as the Old English poem, Beowulf and in “The Knight's Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s book, The Canterbury Tales. In fact, the name originated from the old medieval name “meadesweet.” The ancient druids also considered meadowsweet a holy herb, along with mistletoe, watermint, and vervain. (22, 23, 24, 25)
In 14th-century England, meadowsweet was called “madwort” or “meadwort.” Its tannins provided the structure, texture, and flavor of traditional wines and herbal beers. Red wines fermented with grape skins contain natural tannin. For flower or fruit wines, tannin is sometimes added to the concoction. Today, mead is usually a sweet or dry wine with low alcohol content. As for traditional medical purposes throughout history, people such as Nicholas Culpeper, a 17th-century English pharmacist, used a decoction of meadowsweet root to help with symptoms of fever, while an infusion of the fresh flower tops would be used to promote perspiration, which benefited overall detoxification. (26, 27)
Meadowsweet also works similarly to calm an upset stomach like peppermint and ginger, especially when consumed in tea. It can be used as a mild painkiller. The plant was also used as a diuretic to balance the bowels and urinary tract function, and colonial times, it was used as an anti-inflammatory. (28, 29) For cosmetic purposes, meadowsweet was soaked in rainwater and used as an astringent on skin. (30)
Potential Health Benefits
Modern uses of meadowsweet aren’t that different than traditional uses of the herb. Today, meadowsweet is available as a dietary supplement, available in many forms, including liquid extracts, capsules, and more. It can also be purchased as a dried plant for use in teas.
Potential Health Benefits of Meadowsweet
- Supports upper respiratory system health
- Promotes a healthy digestive system
- Acts as a natural diuretic
- Provides antioxidant support
- Offers temporary pain relief
- Supports urinary tract, kidney, and bladder health
- Provides natural anti-microbial support
- Helps with symptoms of inflammationPromotes a healthy immune system
- Helps soothe sore joints and muscles
- May help prevent glycation
- May help maintain blood sugar levels already in the normal range
- And more
Historically, herbalists have used meadowsweet for temporary, mild pain relief, as a diuretic to support urination, as natural antacid to calm an upset stomach, and to soothe sore joints or muscles (due to its mild anti-inflammatory effect), as mentioned above.
All parts of the plant contain high levels of phenolic compounds, which have been shown to inhibit T-cell proliferation, the immune response, and the production of reactive oxygen species. These processes play a part in the inflammatory response, which is why meadowsweet is used in the treatment of inflammatory conditions. (31) According to one study, meadowsweet successfully treated inflammatory conditions, but further scientific research is needed. (32)
Meadowsweet tea has been shown to have immune-modulating and antioxidant properties, helping to inhibit the production of amylase and alpha-glucosidase, the enzymes responsible for breaking down carbohydrates and starches into sugars, which contribute to changes in blood sugar levels. (33) Due to the herb’s unique nutritional and phytochemical profiles, meadowsweet also inhibits the formations of advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), possibly helping to reduce the risk of diabetic complications. (34, 35)
According to research meadowsweet extracts also have strong antibacterial activity and may protect against the growth of abnormal cells. (36) In a study on rats exposed to radiation, for example, meadowsweet extracts decreased all malignant tumors and overall multiplicity of tumors by 1.5 and 1.3 times, respectively due to the high content of flavonoids and tannins in the plant. To date, no human trials have examined the therapeutic potential of meadowsweet. (37)
How to Buy Meadowsweet
To purchase meadowsweet supplements that have already been vetted for safety and quality by a certified nutritionist, browse the selection of meadowsweet products from Natural Healthy Concepts. (38) If you purchase fresh or dried meadowsweet, be sure to dry it in a cool, dark place. Once dried, store it in an airtight jar or another container. To make a meadowsweet tea, steep 2 tsp of the dried herb to 1 cup of boiling water for 15-20 minutes and sweeten with honey if desired. In tea blends, meadowsweet pairs well with mint, chamomile, rose hips and citrus peels for a mildly sweet flavor. (39)
There is no standard dosage for meadowsweet. It depends on the user’s age, health, and other factors. According to some research, for meadowsweet to achieve an aspirin-like effect, one would need to consumer 50-60 grams, which is not recommended. Instead, try a meadowsweet tincture between 2-4 mL up to three times per day, or try standardized white willow bark extract – a natural source of salicylic acid, the precursor of modern aspirin. Always consult with your health care provider before introducing a new herbal supplement to your diet and follow instructions on product labels for safety. (40)
Potential Side Effects
Meadowsweet is safe for most people when taken in small amounts over a short period of time. Long-term use is not recommended, as side effects could include nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, kidney problems, skin rashes, lung tightness, and blood in the stool. Pregnant or breastfeeding women should not use meadowsweet. Also, do not take meadowsweet if you are allergic to aspirin or have asthma, as extracts of meadowsweet may cause a bronchospasm. In addition, do not take meadowsweet if you are already taking aspirin, other NSAIDS, or warfarin. (41)