“Through grass, through amber’d cornfields, our slow Stream–
Fringed with its flags and reeds and rushes tall,
And Meadowsweet, the chosen of them all
By wandering children, yellow as the cream
Of those great cows–winds on as in a dream
By mill and footbridge, hamlet old and small
(Red roofs, grey tower), and sees the sunset gleam
On mullion’d windows of an ivied Hall.
There, once upon a time, the heavy King
Trod out its perfume from the Meadowsweet,
Strown like a woman’s love beneath his feet,
In stately dance or jovial banqueting,
When all was new; and in its wayfaring
Our Streamlet curved, as now, through grass and wheat.”
This page is going to be a good example of ‘killing two birds with one stone’ and hopefully all will become clear why. Meadowsweet or to be formal Filipendula ulmaria has on the 8th of September 2014 been revealed as an important find belonging to the Whitehorse Hill Kist. As part of the intensive and expensive research project which is looking into the grave goods found in the kist soils have been analysed from in and around the grave. The findings revealed a large amount of Meadowsweet remains around the kist whereas the surrounding peat only contained around 1% of the sample. Although this may seem insignificant there are two very important pieces of information that can be gleaned. Firstly the very fact that the evidence was found on the kist indicates it was specifically placed there as the plant would not be found growing wild on the high moor. In turn this would suggest that the Meadowsweet had some kind of ritual significance to the people who buried the ‘Tin Princess’. One well known property of the plant is it’s sweet and fragrant perfume which would have scented the air around the kist. In 2004 a Bronze age burial mound was excavated in the Welsh Black Mountains, this too contained a large amount of Meadowsweet pollen suggestive of a floral tribute. In 2009 an archaeological excavation of a Scottish kist at Forteviot also revealed Meadowsweet plant remains. The burial was dated to between 1950BC and 2100BC which could coincide with the dating for the Whitehorse Hill burial. In 2001 another Bronze Age burial was excavated at Udny Green in Scotland where a beaker containing meadowsweet pollen was found. All of these instances show that the practice of depositing Meadowsweet in or on Bronze Age burial was fairly widespread across the British Isles. As yet there have not been many examples of this ritual but that is not to say similar occurrences won’t be found in the future.
The other possible piece of information that can be gathered from this discovery is the time of year it took place. Meadowsweet only flowers in the summertime and therefore must have been placed with the burial at this time. Therefore the ‘Tin Princess’ must have shed her mortal coil at or around this same period.
OK, one bird down and this one to go. Having established that for at least 4,000 years Meadowsweet has held some kind of place in Dartmoor’s history but what about later years? The name meadow sweet does not have it’s meaning in the sweet scent of the flower it refers to its use in sweetening mead. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales he refers to Meadowsweet as Medewurte which stems from the Old English word ‘meduwryrt, medu being the word for mead. Both suggest the plant was used to sweeten mead in fact there is another Old English word meduwërig which translates as being a person who is mead drunk, Clark Hall, p.233. Meadow sweet has also been used to flavour some claret wines and is used as a botanical contained in several gins, Hendrick’s being just one example. When included in gin some people say it gives an aroma of bitter almonds, others will say hawthorn blossom whilst soft floral spiciness is another contender. Today it’s possible to but a whole host of Meadowsweet preparations such as dried flowers, extracts, liquid capsules and powders.
The plant can be found growing in damp meadows, roadsides, and the edges of streams which receive plenty of sunshine. the flowering season of Meadowsweet tends to be between mid-June and September depending on the seasonal weather. It also goes under the names of ‘Queen of the meadow’ and ‘Summer’s Farewell’, T. & E. Beer, p.32. Another common name for Meadowsweet is Bridewort because at one time it was customary to strew the sweet almond smelling plant along the bridal route.
The sap of Meadowsweet contains salicin which can be found in aspirin and so it comes as no surprise that it has been used in infusions and lotions for various aches and pains. Over time the list of ailments treated by Meadowsweet is vast and includes; coughs, colds, sore throats, diarrhoea, stomach pain, sunburn, urinary stones, colic and piles. Meadowsweet has also been used as a floor strew which would scent the household air when stepped upon. It has been said that Elizabeth I would insist that nothing else was used in her chambers. In 1597 the herbalist John Gerard wrote; “The leaves and flowers excel all other strowing herbs for to deck up houses, to straw in chambers, hall and banqueting houses in the summer time, for the smell thereof makes the heart merrie, delighting the senses; and neither does it cause headache, or loathsome to meat, as some other sweet smelling herbes do.” When crushed the roots of meadowsweet produce a black dye which was sometimes used in the cloth industry.
During the First World War there was a great emphasis on ‘Patriotic Farming’ which was intended to utilise as much land as possible for food production. In 1915 farmers were informed that although Meadowsweet didn’t have much of a feed value as grasses or clovers it nevertheless did provide some nutrition. It was advised to graze any land which contained Meadowsweet for two or three seasons. It was also noted that applications of potassium and phosphate manures would enhance its growth.
However on the minus side it was also said to be unlucky to bring too much into the house due to its associations with death. This is an interesting and deep-rooted belief, for as can be seen above it stems way back to the Bronze Age. Another precautionary tale about Meadowsweet was that if too much of the scent was inhaled it could induce a deep sleep from which one would never wake up.
Clark Hall, J. R. 2004. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Toronto: Toronto University Press.