Sandy’s Garden ... Sweet Maudlin

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Maudlin is defined in The Chambers Dictionary as, “weeping; foolishly lachrymose, especially when in a fuddled, half-drunk state; weakly sentimental.

And the dictionary adds that present-day word comes from the Middle English word Maudelein meaning ‘woman of Magdala’, from the assumption that Mary Magdalene was the penitent woman mentioned in verse 38 of chapter 7 in St. Luke’s Gospel.

I do know that the plant has nothing whatsoever to do with making us weepy; so I can work out that the name must be connected with Mary Magdalene: but I don’t know why this particular plant came to be associated with the biblical character. It’s also known as English mace, flossflower, sweet milfoil, sweet Nancy and sweet yarrow - and I can explain why the word ‘sweet’ crops up several times. That’s because the plants have a pleasant fragrance, which resulted in our ancestors using them as what is called ‘a strewing herb’, meaning that they were spread among stored linens and clothes to repel insects like moths, lice and ticks when people’s standards of hygiene were somewhat below what we would consider acceptable today. It was also used to sweeten the air in rooms in medieval houses, disguising the often disgusting smells which tended to be ever-present in these dwellings.

In botanical circles, the plant is known as Achillea ageratum, and I have an explanation of the name Achillea. Greek myth tells the story of Achilles landing at Mysia while on his way towards Troy. Achilles was a hero to many of his contemporaries, but Telephus, the son of Hercules, was not a member of his fan club. Telephus sought to delay Achilles’ departure from Mysia, but he was tripped up by Dionysus, falling on to Achilles’ spear and suffering an injury. When the wound refused to heal, Telephus turned to the Delphic Oracle for advice and was told, in the oracle’s famously indirect style, that ‘the wounder will be the healer’. Since Achilles was ‘the wounder’, Telephus asked him to scrape some metal off the point of the very spear which caused the wound, which Achilles agreed to do in return for help, rather than hindrance, in getting on his way towards Troy. And, strange to say, the plants which we call Achillea sprang up from where the metal shavings landed, plants which turned out to have the power to stop bleeding and to promote healing.

Well, whatever the truth in the story of the origin of the name, Achillea ageratum … and the specific name ageratum refers to this particular variety of Achillea having leaves which closely resemble the leaves of another plant called Ageratum … is native to Greece and to much of southern Europe. That being the case, it will come as no surprise to learn that the plant really likes to grow in full sun in moist, but well-drained, soil. Since the Mediterranean region does experience winter frosts, albeit neither as severe nor as long-lasting as the frosts we can experience in northern Europe, Achillea ageratum is a hardy plant which will grow in the United Kingdom. It is perennial, reaching a height of a bit more than half a metre … say, a couple of feet in old money … when fully mature, with a similar spread. It flowers between July and September, and the seeds ripen in September.

It is most often grown outside its native area for its pleasant fragrance, although the leaves can be eaten both raw and cooked and can be used in soups, stews and salads. I have never tasted sweet maudlin myself, but can report that it is said to have a pleasantly mild flavour when first placed in the mouth, a flavour which becomes more intense with chewing, leaving a tingling sensation behind. And it certainly shouldn’t reduce you to tears!