Rosebay Willowherb | Fireweed
You may know it by the name of Rosebay or Fireweed, either way, this is probably one of our prettiest, and yet unheralded of all wildflowers. Rosebay Willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) is, for some, a major garden pest, one of those dreaded ‘weeds’ that dares to germinate on a patch of soil where it shouldn’t.
But, for me, this flower is one of the most significant signs of summer. The spikes of pink-purple flowers begin to appear in June, while others flower as late as September. It is true to say that willowherb is a very successful plant, one that will colonise hedgerows and bare patches of earth in no time at all.
The success is due to the downy seeds which form in the autumn and blow around in the winds until they settle on the floor and soon become a new generation of plants. These seed heads are numerous, and for this reason, it’s safe to gather some for tinder without causing local extinctions – although always collect any wild plants sparingly.
The tinder is quite similar to that of the cottony seed heads of thistle, but those of rosebay willowherb seem to attract more moisture from the air, making them smoulder slowly, rather than erupt into a mass of flames, unless that is, if they have been thoroughly dried before introducing a spark. You can dry them easily be storing in a pocket.
The long stems sometimes grow up to eight feet, although four and five-foot examples are more commonly seen. These long stems were once used to make cordage, although from most of my attempts it seems quite weak, especially if compared to the huge strength of nettle twine.
The young leaves may be eaten, although they don’t have much flavour. The young shoots and even the root may also be used as a food source. Some caution may be needed though, as in M. Grieve’s a Modern Herbal it is stated that an infusion of the leaves can stupefy a person!
The pith found on the inside of the stems has a slightly sweet flavour and makes a good addition to soups and stews, and even gives thickening properties – much like cornflour. The leaves, once dried, make a suitable hot drink which in Russia goes by the name of ‘kaporie’ tea.