Queen of the Meadow grows in prolific numbers along the wetland path of the Woodland Garden. This herb is a native of Europe, from which salicylic acid (one of the keys in the making of aspirin) was first obtained from the flowers in 1839.
Stems: Queen of the Meadow is an erect non-native perennial that grows from 3 to 7 feet high on stems that are grooved or angled and which branch. Stems can be greenish to reddish.
The leaves are compound, pinnately divided into leaflets and doubly toothed; and prominently veined; darker green on top and the underside gray-white and finely hairy. The terminal leaflet has three to seven lobes. The lateral opposite leaflets, in 2 to 4 pairs, are usually not lobed. Two smaller leaf segments, or stipules, are at the base of the leaf stalk. The stipules have auricles which partially encircle the stem. All have serrated edges. Leaf stalks can be reddish.
The inflorescence is a tightly branched showy panicle on a stalk at the top of the stem and on side stems branching from the upper main stem. On each panicle branch the flowers tend to open from bottom to top.
The flowers are fragrant (almond like), 5 parted with white corollas. The widely spreading white petals are rounded, then narrowed abruptly to a clawed base. Sepals number 5 also, are green, short, and reflex in the fruiting stage. There are about 10 to 20 exserted stamens, slightly longer than the petals, with long white filaments and pale-yellow anthers which surround a group of 5 to 15 pale yellow pistils (normally 6 to 8). Each flower is on a short stalk.
Seed: The flower matures to a smooth spiral shaped achene, 3 to 6 mm long, dark reddish-brown when mature. Seeds require a period of cold stratification, up to 90 days, for germination.
Habitat: Queen of the Meadow grows in rich soils that are moist to wet but well drained. Full sun is best, part shade is tolerated. Soil should not dry out to grow this plant in the home garden. It grows from a weakly rhizomatous root system which will form clumps under the correct moist conditions, but usually not large colonies. This species does not have root tubers. The plant is somewhat susceptible to an orange leaf rust fungus Triphragmium ulmariae.
Names: Queen of the Meadow has various common names used by other species also; likewise, other plants have been given its common name. The Scientific name of Filipendula is from the Latin filum for "thread" and pendulus for "hanging," referring to how the small root tubers are strung together by fibrous roots in the species F. vulgaris, which is the type species for the genus and the only species which has the tubers. The species name of ulmaria means elm-like as a lateral leaflet is similar to the wrinkled top and serrated edge of an elm leaf. An older scientific name synonym is Spiraea ulmaria L.
An entirely different plant, Spiraea Alba, is also known by the common name of Meadow Sweet, but lacks the medicinal and folk use characteristics of Queen of the Meadow, described more fully at the page bottom. The author names for the plant classification are: First to classify was '(L.)' which refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. His work was amended by ‘Maxim.’ which is for Karl Maximovich, (1827-1891) Russian botanist who extensively studied and wrote about the flora of the far east. See page bottom for more notes.
Comparisons: A similar plant is the introduced Queen of the Prairie, F. rubra, which has pink flowers, a leaf with more deeply lobed leaflets and a seed that does not have a spiral.
Above: The inflorescence of Queen of the Meadow. Drawing courtesy of Kurt Stüber's Online Library.
Below: The inflorescence panicle is tightly branched with separate clusters of flowers. The lower clusters tend to open flowers first.
Below: 1st photo - The immature seeds. The spiral shape distinguishes these seeds from those of F. rubra where the seeds are not twisted. 2nd photo - The leaf structure. Note the stipules at the base of the leaf stalk and the elm-like shape of the lateral leaflets, which gave the plant its species name of ulmaria.
Below: The pair of large stipules at the base of the leaf clasp the stem.
Below: 1st photo - The five white petals are abruptly narrowed to clawed bases. The stamens surround a central cluster of pale yellow pistils. 2nd photo - The underside of the leaf is much paler in color and has a few fine hair. Lateral leaflets are stalkless.
Notes: Martha Crone recorded planting this species in 1933 and 1934 and it was listed on her 1951 inventory of plants in the Garden at that time and presumably has been in the Garden ever since as it is listed on all later census reports. Queen of the Meadow is an introduced plant to the United States from Eurasia and it has been noted in the wild only in St. Louis County in Minnesota, where it was probably a garden escapee. The Minnesota DNR and the U of M Herbarium consider the plant non-native and not present in the wild. In North America its range is limited to the upper Midwest, the northeast and the northeastern Canadian provinces.
Lore and Uses: Salicylic acid, a key chemical for making acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) was first obtained from the flowers in 1839 in Germany [Löwig, C.; Weidmann, S., 1839, Annalen der Physik und Chemie; Beiträge zur Organischen Chemie (Contributions to Organic Chemistry) (46): 57–83.] The bark of Willow was known from ancient times to contain the chemical also. In 1897 a synthetic version was finally achieved. As salicylates are found in the flowers of Queen of the Meadow, these are the basis for the plants long-standing reputation as a remedy for flu, rheumatism, arthritis, as a diuretic, and for fevers. The flowers have sweet almond like odor. Because of this aroma, Queen Elizabeth I of England favored this herb for strewing on the floor of her chambers. The leaf has a pleasant taste and also has an aroma somewhat different from the flowers. Gerard (Ref. #6a) wrote: "The leaves and floures of Meadow sweet farre excelle all other strowing herbs for to decke up houses, to strawe in chambers, halls and banqueting-houses in the summer-time, for the smell thereof makes the heart merrie and joyful and delighteth the senses."
Queen of the Meadow has a high tannin content which gives it an astringent action and may make it effective in treating diarrhea. Herbalist maintain it will be the best plant remedy for hyperacidity and heartburn; also to help control peptic ulcers and gastritis. Mrs. Grieve (Ref. #7) reports - the a decoction of the root in white wine was considered a specific treatment for fevers; an infusion of 1 oz. of dried herb to a pint of water was the usual means of taking the herb ("in wine glassful doses"). Culpepper writes in The English Physician Enlarged (Ref. #4b ): "It is under the dominion of Venus. It effectually opens the passages of the urine, helpeth the stranguary, the stone in the kidnies or bladder, the gravel, and all other pains of the bladder and reins, by taking the roots in powder, or a decoction of them in white wine, with a little honey. The roots made into powder and mixed with honey, in the form of an electuary, doth much help them whose stomachs are swollen, dissolving and breaking the wind which was the cause thereof; and is also very effectual for all the diseases of the lungs, as shortness of breath, wheezing, hoarseness of the throat, and the cough; and to expectorate tough phlegm, or any other parts thereabout."
More on the common names: The older common name of Meadow Sweet comes from "Meadsweet" and the older Anglo Saxon "Meadwort" which refers to the plant's use as a flavoring agent for mead. It was one of the fifty ingredients in a drink called "Save" mentioned in Chaucer's Knight's Tale, (the drink referred to was Meadwort - a honey-herb wine). HOWEVER, Spiraea Alba has the proper claim to the common name of Meadow Sweet.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"