Filipendula ulmaria (formerly known as Spirea ulmaria) or meadowsweet aka “Queen of the meadows” is a fragrant, tuberous perennial in the Rosacea family, spreading its tall clusters of tiny white or pink flowers in damp, shady habitats, forming cloudlike sprays up to four feet high. The flowers themselves have a scent variously described as similar to hawthorne or almond and have been used as herbs are far back as the Bronze Age when they were scattered in gravesites in Wales and Scotland (Staub 163). The flowers were used to flavor wines and mead and, infused with honey as a tonic to calm the stomach; hence another popular name for the plant is “Meadwort” (Staub 163-4, Watts 250). The leaves contain wintergreen oil and are also extremely aromatic (Watts 250). Historically, the plant was most extensively used as a strewing herb and was also called “Bridewort” because of its frequent use in wedding ceremonies (Staub 163). It was Queen Elizabeth’s favorite strewing herb (Watts 250 and Staub 163). In addition, like slippery elm, the plant contains salicin or salicylic acid which, discovered in 1839, was synthesized in 1897 as “aspirin” (Staub 163; Hogan 695).
|https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5031448 Photo by Alethe.|
In terms of literary history, meadowsweet is cited fairly rarely, often in a romantic context which recalls its use in wedding ceremonies. In the proto-Arthurian set of Welsh tales, the Mabinogian (written in the twelfth century and translated from the Welsh by lady Charlotte Guest in 1838) meadowsweet is used by the magicians Gwydion and Math, along with oak blossom and bloom, to create Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers, conjured to wed Lleu Llaw Gyffes, who has been cursed by his mother so he cannot marry a human woman (Staub 164, Watts 249). Aside from a brief but descriptive line about meadow-sweet which “taunts high its showy wreath” in a sonnet on Summer by John Clare, the only other references I can find for the flower are in Tennyson’s “The Brook,” where a jealous lover wades “waist-deep in meadow sweet” (l.83) and in Meredith’s Richard Feverel, where two lovers meet near a river where meadow-sweet “hangs from the banks,” and the scent repeatedly reminds the man of his love (all qtd. by Randall 133).
Meadowsweet only appears twice in Virginia Woolf’s work, both times in Orlando, a book filled with the wildflowers beloved by Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West. Both times meadowsweet is manifested by its scent, and the first time it is in a bridal context. At the point in the nineteenth century when the female Orlando is seized with the desire for “Life! A Lover!” (178), she rushes out onto the moors, breaks her ankle, and, lying on the ground with “the scent of bog myrtle and the meadow-sweet . . . in her nostrils,” she declares “I am nature’s bride,” although she is almost immediately rescued by her eventual lover and husband, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine (182). The scent of meadowsweet is again conjured, this time as something of an antidote to the golden river of commercial society which surrounds Hyde Park in a more modern age: at her nearby house in Curzon street “when the meadow-sweet blew, . . . she could remember curlew calling and one very old man with a gun” (O 212). Very far from its natural habitat of bogs and riversides, the delicate flower survives in her memory as a reminder of rural happiness.