In summer you will see Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmara) growing wild. It tends to grow near ditches and watercourses, throwing up spires of frothy white flowers, but it’s appearance is not the only reason it’s rather marvellous…
Meadowsweet was the plant from which aspirin was first developed, and the difference between Meadowsweet and aspiring tells us a lot about how herbal medicine and pharmaceutical medicine differ.
ASPIRIN CAME FROM WILLOW BARK! RIGHT?
It’s true that willow bark (or rather the pithy cortex below the bark) is a source of salicylates- the natural form of aspirin. But salicylic acid was first extracted from Meadowsweet. At the time the latin name for the plant was Spirea ulmaria so the man made version (acetylsalicylic acid) was named in its honour; ‘aspirin’ meaning ‘of spirea’!
Knowing that Meadowsweet is a potent source of salicylic acids it won’t surprise you that a traditional and modern use of the herb is to treat arthritis. Herbalists in the past didn’t know about the chemical properties of plants though…so how did they know to use Meadowsweet for arthritic pain? Historical herbalists often looked at the form of a plant, or where it grew to determine how it could be used. Meadowsweet, bog bean, and willow are all herbs with anti-inflammatory properties native to the UK, and all are found near water. Growing in the damp conditions that seemed to aggravate osteoarthritis and rheumatism meant these plants were selected as treatments. We now know why they were effective!
The other traditional and modern use for Meadowsweet is somewhat more surprising; we most commonly use it where stomach ulceration is suspected.
ASPIRIN CAUSES STOMACH ULCERS SO WHY USE ‘PLANT ASPIRIN’ TO TREAT THEM?
In developing acetylsalicylic acid scientists enhanced the anti-inflammatory properties. Unfortunately this new compound also inhibited pathways which protect the stomach so stomach ulceration is a well known side effect of taking aspirin. Taking an extract of Meadowsweet flowers is rather different; as well as the milder plant salicylates there are tannins, flavenoids, and a whole host of other chemicals which give the herb antacid and antiulcerogenic properties. It also has anticoagulant properties.
So, we have a native British ‘weed’ which has a long history of being used to treat arthritis and now we know the chemicals in the plant that give it that property. It has given rise to one of the most widely used pharmaceuticals in the world (and new uses for aspirin are reported regularly) and can be used to treat one of the biggest side effects of the pharmaceutical! Marvellous. (And it smells pretty nice too!)
Image Credit Integrate CPD