At this time of the year Irish meadows are an explosion of colour, scent and beauty. Every year, in the Winter months I forget how impressive the totally natural display of planting is and then every Summer I am reminded again how spectacular our natural surroundings can be. On a walk in the fields near my house recently I felt giddy with excitement. Purple thistles soared up against the blue sky, Blackberries scrambled over hedges covered in white flowers and Meadowsweet spired upwards with fluffy heads of blossoms almost like Candy floss.
There are so many native Irish flowers that are worth talking about, many of which also have medicinal benefits. The Meadow sweet, or Filipendula ulmaria, is one such herb which has some fascinating healing qualities associated with it. It is a perennial herb from the Rosaceae family and can be found growing wild all over Europe and Western Asia. The most likely place you will find them growing are damp meadows where they often cover vast areas with their fluffy plumes of off-white flower heads. Visually the heads are not unlike those of the Astilbe yet the Meadow sweet is more ruffled in flower shape. The stems too are interesting to look at, sometimes up to 1.5 metres in height, their colour is a rich deep red against the greener pinnate leaves.
Another lovely feature of this plant is the fact that it is sweetly scented and when you pass a large area of them the scent is almost intoxicating-sweet like almonds with a hint of medicine like germolene. It is no wonder then that this plant has been long used as a ‘strewing herb’ meaning it was strewn on floors to scent a room. It is said that in meadowsweet was the favourite chamber flower of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th Century where it gave off a pleasant smell.
There are many historical and mythological references to this plant my favourite of which is that of Cú Chulainn, who was bathed in Meadowsweet baths to cure his fevers and uncontrollable rage.
The most interesting thing about this plant though is its use in the culinary world as well as its benefits as a medicinal plant. The plant itself is edible and has many uses in the kitchen from making beer, wine and vinegars as well as adding the flowers to jam. As a medicinal cure this plant has a fascinating history. The plant contains high levels of salicylic acid which is known for its ability to reduce pain.
Long used as a cure for digestive problems the herb also plays a role in the treatment of many other ailments such as reducing inflammation and to treat sunburn as well as swelling, arthritis, headaches and coughs. Traditional herbal remedies are often forgotten these days and with many of these symptoms people would now take Aspirin. Well, here is a fascinating fact: In the mid nineteenth century the chemicals contained in this plant were actually used to create aspirin. Some people even call the herb the ‘Herbal aspirin’ but interestingly taking this herb is much easier on the stomach than Aspirin can be and yet has many of the same effects.
One thing to say about Meadowsweet is that asthmatics should avoid taking this herb. One in five asthmatics has Samster’s triad, which is also known as Aspirin induced asthma. In this case Meadowsweet can bring about the symptoms of Asthma. On a whole, the rule I would say is one should always check what is safe with their doctor or qualified herbalist.
Taken as a tea or eating the root for example, Meadowsweet can aid in normalising or balancing the digestive tract and so helping with indigestion and gut problems. Aspirin for example could even make these worse. When using this herb I would make a tea which is incredible for digestive problems and you can also soak the flowers in alcohol to make an elixir that you can use throughout the whole year, even if the Meadowsweet is not in bloom.
From the Moon goddess to chewing gum-some fascinating herbs
Ireland’s herbal tradition is an ancient one and in recent years there has been a big resurgence in the recognition of the important role plants play in our well being. One company that works with nature to create herbal cures and remedies is Barefoot Botanicals. Run by husband and wife team Marina Kesso and Ross Hennessy, the couple have a small herb farm in Cliffoney, County Sligo, where they grow the medicinal plants for their clinical practice. There are over 160 different herbs grown on the farm that are dried for teas or processed into tinctures, vinegars, oils and glycerites. The coupe also run courses, talks and open days on the farm.
Here are three of Marina’s favourite herbal plants from her own garden.
Stachys betonica -wood betony
This perennial is a fantastic plant for the nervous system and for strengthening and combating exhaustion. Marina harvests it every year and makes tinctures out of it which are fantastic for treating frazzled nerves, tension, anxiety and is also great for headaches. It is also a wonderful herb for sinus congestion as well as aiding the digestive system and relaxing the nervous tissue in the gut. A tincture made from this plant is also great for aches and pains from nervous disposition as well as treating nervous bowel problems such as IBS.
Artemisia vulgaris -mugwort
This plant is one of Marina’s absolute favourites and is named after Artemis-the goddess of the moon and the hunt. This plant is very specific energetically for women and is a ‘blood mover’. The perennial is used in regulating the menstrual flow and Marina says it can actually help in regulating the cycle according to the moon. The plant helps with both the physical and emotional symptoms of menstrual problems and can be very balancing. It also has properties which balance, anti-depress and help insomnia.
Grindelia squarrosa -Gumplant
Marina rates this plant as one of the best respiratory plants. It’s a great expectorant plant and when harvested in full flower it is made into a tincture at the clinic. It also has anti-spasmodic and sedative qualities making it very useful for respiratory problems such as coughs, bronchitis and emphysema. Overall the plant is great for relaxing the airways and shifting any mucus from them. A fascinating fact is that this plant was traditionally actually used as a chewing gum and when you taste the sticky gum before the plant goes to flower it actually tastes a little like chewing gum.
For more inspiring ideas on herbal remedies go to the website www.ionaherbal.ie or visit the Facebook page where you can access lots of fascinating videos on the plants themselves.
Meadowsweet and Blackthorn-a fascinating Irish story
Botanicals can also be used in the making of alcoholic beverages. In Ireland we have a long history of using our native treasures in the making of wines, spirits and brews. Think of Elderflower wine and Sloe gin for example. A fascinating example of a brew that uses not only sloes from the native Blackthorn tree but also other fascinating botanicals is the Irish brewed Drumshanbo Gunpowder Gin. The founder, PJ Rigney distills by hand in his ‘The Shed’ distillery and uses traditional copper pot stills to create this fascinating creation. The delicious gin is made using lots of interesting ingredients and I was fascinated by the unique approach. Gunpowder tea is one ingredient which comes from the tea plant-Camellia sinensis. The green leaves are collected and dried and rolled into pellets for use-hence the name gunpowder. More fascinating ingredients are Juniper berries, Oriental lime and lemon, angelica root, Orris root (which comes from the Iris), caraway seed, as well as coriander, cardamom and caraway. Most interesting here is the use of native Meadowsweet. For more go to: www. gunpowdergin.com