meadow-sweet defined in 1912 yearmeadow-sweet - MEADOW-SWEET (Spiræa ulmaria);
meadow-sweet - "Queen of the Meadows" is the usual salutation given to this plant, and a most fitting one, for, graceful and beautiful, its tall, stately presence fragrant with rare sweetness, it can claim all the attributes of queenship. Its spires of creamy flowers rise tier above tier high above all others in the water - side meadows, thickest and finest where they fringe the brook, and as they toss to and fro in every breeze they have been, not inaptly, compared to sea-foam tossing on the beach. A nearer view, and they suggest them-selves as waving white plumes, and justify the country name of "Bridewort." In a somewhat similar name, "Courtship and Matrimony," it is a little difficult to catch the" special allusion. As "Maid of the Meadow" and "Maid of the Mead" it is often known, while "Mede-sweet," "Meads-weed," "Meadow-wort" and "Mead-wort " are yet other names it carries. In some of the southern counties cottage folk call it "Meadow-soot" by a curious inversion of sound and sense. An old writer describes it prettily as "Medwurt, the herb regina."
The Meadow-sweet is one of the spiraeas, and far more beautiful than some of those that are better known to us through cultivation. There are only two other spiraeas growing wild in Britain, the little dropwort and the willow spiraea, but the latter is almost certainly not a native plant. Long before the flowers appear in mid-summer, the Meadow-sweet adds charm to the meadows, for in quite early spring days the tall, reddish-tinted stems carry a mass of graceful foliage. Each leaf is deeply divided into a number of pointed segments, the margins of all being slightly "nicked," and while the face of the leaf is a deep green the back is almost white, and covered with a soft down. Every breeze that sets the delicate leaves quivering reveals this silvery backing, and calls attention to the daintiness of the plant. It is from the fashioning of the leaves that its second botanical name - ulmaria, - conies. Three hundred years ago it was explained to us that the leaves are "slightly snipt about the edges, white on the inner side, and on the upper side crumpled and wrinkled like unto those of the Elme Tree; whereof it took the name Ulmaria, of the similitude or likeness to Elm leaves" (ulmus, an elm). Down by the stem each leaf has a broad leafy appendage known as its stipule.
The flowers, carried on furrowed stalks three or four feet high, gain their general attractiveness from being massed together in light and feathery clusters, but though individually small they are particularly dainty, the true inwardness of their beauty being better seen if a lens is used. The plant belongs to that family famed for beauty, the Rosaceæ, and hence the flowers are of the rose pattern. There are five sepals, each turned right back and set closely against the "receptacle" - that is, the end of the stalk bearing the flower; the five little cream petals are attached most delicately by mere points in a ring round the edge, as the diagram at the head of the chapter shows. The attachment is so slight that at the least provocation they scatter like snow. Just within, and in a ring also, stand up many fragile stamens, all golden-tipped and producing an apparent over-abundance of pollen for the necessities of the plant. But the lavish production has an end in view, the Meadow-sweet has an object for her pollen other than merely fertilising her seed. She provides no honey to back up in tangible form the fragrant invitation she scatters abroad, but she offers pollen instead, and this is equally acceptable to the bees, for they must provide and store up in their hives "bee-bread" made of pollen to feed their nymphs and larvae. Hence they visit the blossoms eagerly, and go away well satisfied with their harvest. In the very centre are five minute structures - the carpels - each consisting of an ovary, a style, and a stigma. As they ripen they provide us with a little surprise, as is usual in this family, where the fruits always tend to form in a curiously individual way instead of after a type, for they twist and lie so as to form a spiral. As the fruit is, at best, very small, this point is often overlooked even by those who are very familiar with the plant. Lord Avebury asks, "Can the object be to mimic small caterpillars, and thus inveigle birds to carry them about ?" It is quite possible, for we know that such mimicry undoubtedly exists in other plants, such as in the castor-oil plant, where the seeds are like beetles and obviously intended to deceive birds. Inside the twisted cases are small brown, flattened seeds. The flowers, no doubt, are usually cross-fertilised, for the stamens are ripe and shed their pollen before their own stigmas are prepared to receive it. They blossom during June, July and August.
Though the flowers gain the chief credit for the plant's fragrance - "The almond-scented Meadowsweet whose plumes of powerful odour incense all the air" - yet the same aromatic principle runs through the whole plant. The leaves used to be put into claret to give a fine relish to it, and they have a pleasant flavour like orange-flower water. In olden days the Meadow-sweet stood very high in estimation for a strewing herb. "The leaves and flowres excell all other strowing herbes for to deck up houses, to straw in chambers, halls and banqueting houses in the summer time," says Gerard, "for the smell thereof makes the heart merrie, delighting the senses; and neither does it cause headache, or lothsomenesse to meat, as some other sweet smelling herbes do." On the other hand, a more modern flower-writer, though agreeing as to its harmlessness and delightfulness in the open air, asserts that it is very injurious in a close room, and that it has been the cause of severe illness to some who kept it in their bedrooms.
A recipe more than a hundred years old tells us that if the flowers are infused in any kind of liquor they give a pleasant taste, while if added to mead the flavour of the Greek wines is attained. The truth is that the same flavouring which characterises the almond is the base of that of the "Queen of the Meadow." If a few of the unopened buds are placed in the mouth, the flavour of, say, an almond or plum kernel can immediately be detected. Even in the roots it is present, and Linnaeus pointed out that if these are dried and ground and mixed with meal they form no bad substitute for flour.
The Icelanders have a curious superstition with regard to this plant. They say that if gathered on St. John's Day it can be used to discover a thief. It will float in water if that thief be a woman, and sink if it be a man.
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