Elfwort and Queen of the Meadow

Many of you will have noticed the ditches full of Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) that are so much a feature of Herefordshire lanes. I associate this plant with Lammas so it feels early, in the first week of July, to be seeing so much of it this year. A member of the Rose family, also known as Queen of the meadow, Maid of the mead, Bridewort, and Meadsweet (the name used in William turner’s herbal of 1568 and by Chaucer), this herb was, together with Water mint and Vervain, held most sacred by the Druids. It was used a strewing herb, the flowers and the leaves both having distinctly different fragrances – the flowers sweet, and the leaves aromatic and sharp, with the scent of almonds. Gerard wrote (in 1597) that the ‘smell ….makes the heart merrie, delighting the senses’, and Elizabeth I would have only meadowsweet in her chambers. I love to use an infused oil made from the flowers in my natural perfumes.

The flowers have been used for centuries to flavour mead, wine, beer and syrups. The Druids used it for fevers and malaria: the legendary Cuchulainn was given the herb to calm his fevers and rages – hence its Gaelic name ‘belt of Cuchulainn’. The flowering tops are especially good as a tea for upset stomachs and diarrhoea, soothing heartburn and hyperacidity, as well as ulcers. Its anti inflammatory effects aid joint problems of many different types – I make an infused oil made from the flowers and use this topically. Headaches and urinary inflammations such as cystitis and urethritis can also be helped by drinking the soothing and relaxing tea.

Meadowsweet contains natural salicylate salts. Salicylic acid was isolated from it in 1835, and subsequently synthesised and manufactured as Aspirin ( a name patented by Bayer in 1898). This name is based on the old name for Meadowsweet, Spiraea. One of the effects of this concentrated, isolated version of the naturally occurring chemical is that it burns the stomach lining. In a beautiful illustration of the benefit of using natural remedies, Meadowsweet, due to a combination of naturally occurring organic compounds, soothes the gut, reducing irritation and inflammation in the stomach, as well as having the positive benefits of salicylic acid. It appears to have integrated protective agents – the whole plant having a more beneficial effect than the isolated chemical. This is a commonly encountered phenomena with herbal medicine, and one of the fundamental reasons why we value using herbs rather than modern drugs – the synergy, safety and increased efficacy of the whole plant. This is very useful information given that £259.6 million was spent on OTC remedies for GI complaints (Pharmaceutical Journal website, RPS figures from 2013).

Good combinations are : drink it with chamomile and marshmallow for GI problems, and with nettle for arthritis.

Elecampane (Inula helenium) is another herb looking at its best in July and August. I was delighted to read an article about new research on this herb in the June issue of ‘Herbs’ ( Journal of the Herb Society). It vindicated my love for this plant (in terms of its medicinal use – it doesn’t have anything to prove as far as I’m concerned - it’s our largest herbaceous plant and is gorgeous) as an incredible immune tonic. I have been making my favourite cough syrup from the roots harvested every autumn for the past 25 years.

Like Meadowsweet, it is a lover of damp shady places, so grows well here in Herefordshire. It is a member of the daisy family, originated in Central Asia and introduced by the Romans (probably) – a welcome import.

Known as Wild sunflower, Horseheal, Elf dock, Velvet dock and Scabwort, it has been grown here as a root vegetable, a condiment, and for confectionary, and cultivated in every physic and many cottage garden for centuries. It has survived in the wild, especially around monastic sites along the west coast of Ireland and Scotland – indeed these are the only places that I have seen it growing wild. The root becomes more aromatic as it dries (it was used in pot pourri, much like orris root) with a violet scent – it is used as incense. Its use is well documented – for example, by the C13th physicians of Myddfai – and it was valued for many different reasons. Modern herbalists use the aromatic, antiseptic and warming root for damp chesty conditions, for conditions with copious phlegm, for relieving URT conditions ( eg chronic runny noses) , and for asthma. I use an infused oil that I make from the root as a base for massage oils and as a base for a warming chest rub. The bitter principle aids digestion and appetite, and the antiseptic qualities reduce bacterial infections and breaks up thick mucus. One of my teachers, Christopher Hedley, recommends a reliable immune restorative mix for chronic fatigue – elecampane, lovage, licorice and cinnamon. Elecampane contains inulin, (identified by Valentine Rose in 1804 in the autumn root of Elecampane which he found to be 44% inulin) , which soothes bronchial linings; and antiseptic terpenes, which are active against TB. Elecampane combines well with elderflower for nasal catarrh, and thyme for chesty coughs.

As long ago as 1885 the ‘active’ bitter principle helenin was identified as a powerful bactericide and antiseptic. A local vet once showed me an old herbal that recommended Elecampane for scabies, amongst other things (Scabwort?). Gypsies scented their hands with it when handling difficult horses (L. Bremness, ‘Elecampane: a herbal star’ June 2016 ‘Herbs’), hence ‘Horseheal’, perhaps.

The latest research on Elecampane builds on emerging medical research relating to the importance of gut health and ‘biome’ in our general health, and especially in chronic diseases. Inulin fertilises the desirable ‘good’ bacteria in your gut, particularly Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, acting as a pro-biotic. It enhances mineral absorption and inhibits growth of certain pathogenic bacteria, so promoting colon health. It does this by passing through our stomachs undigested, so the bacteria in our lower gut can thrive on it. Another constituent of elecampane is levulose, a fruit sugar that doesn’t raise our blood sugar levels. Interesting that it was used in confectionary! Biologists (from CIT, in a paper published in 2009) have shown that extracts of Elecampane were 100% effective against 200 strains of Staphylococci tested including MRSA. And we haven’t even started on the anglo saxon remedy for infections, which recommended garlic and leeks….in this case, scientists said they were ‘utterly dumbfounded…we did not see this coming at all.’

PS the market share for OTC remedies for ‘coughs colds and sore throats’ is £444m (RPS, 2013 figures)

Written for The Hedge, Autumn 2016.

Source: www.thehedge.org.uk