Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
The brand name aspirin was derived from the former botanical name for meadowsweet, Spiraea ulmaria (now Filipendula ulmaria). In the late 19th century the German company Bayer was looking for a medicine that could replicate the traditional benefits in arthritis of willowbark (Salix spp.), without the stomach-harming properties of the chemical initially derived from its original derivative, salicylic acid. Walking by the river one day one of their scientists reputedly squeezed the flowerbuds of meadowsweet, with a longstanding reputation for healing stomach problems, and noticed the strong aroma of methyl salicylate (familiar from wintergreen oil): it gave him an idea. Back in the laboratory Bayer revisited the earlier work by the French scientist Charles Gerhardt who first generated acetylsalicyclic acid in the laboratory, and marketed it as having comparable properties to salicylic acid without as much harm to the stomach wall. They called their new medicine after the Latin ‘a spiraea’ (from meadowsweet). Meanwhile the original plant remains an effective and safe remedy for stomach problems, including the consequences of acid dyspepsia, though that is mainly due to its high levels of tannins (see next post) with its salicin tucked in behind.