Dear Readers, back in 2002 Rosebay Willowherb was named as the County Plant of Greater London by the charity Plantlife, and, with its long association with the capital and its familiarity to Londoners, it seems an excellent choice. But it was not always so, for this was once a shy, little-seen plant, its spread a result of two World Wars, aided, as with so many ‘weeds’, by the development of the railways.
I have a copy of a book called ‘Flowers of the Field’ by the Reverend C. A. Johns, which was published in 1913. In it, the good Reverend describes the plant as ‘rare, except as a garden escape’. And yet, as the forests were felled and burned to provide wood for the First World War effort, it suddenly appeared in great swathes of cherry-pink, a development that was watched with some trepidation. In his book ‘Weeds’, Richard Mabey describes how it was seen by the botanist H.J. Riddelsdell:
‘Beautiful as the plant is in its flowering season, when it is in seed it creates desolation and ugliness over the whole area’.
The plant is native to the whole of the Northern Hemisphere, and in North America it is known as ‘Fireweed’: Rosebay Willowherb is either more tolerant of scorched earth than other plants, or positively prefers it. This was to stand it in good stead during the Second World War, when it colonised the bombsites so successfully that the Londoners christened it ‘Bombweed’.
As is often the way with the Blitz, we now look back on it as a time of good spirits and plucky bulldog tenacity. Londoners are said to have seen this new pink plant, which few of them would have seen previously, as a sign of London rising from the ashes like a phoenix. I wonder if some people were also a little perturbed by this new ‘invader’ however, especially as they were right in the middle of fighting a human one. If anyone remembers these times, or remembers their family talking about them, I would love to know!
While all this bombing and burning was going on, the plant was further distributed, just as Oxford Ragwort and Buddleia were, by the spread of the railways, the seeds being happily blown along and finding the clinker and scree slopes of the embankments most amenable to growth. In fact, when I head down to Dorset this week to visit my family I fully expect my route to be a veritable carnival of past Wednesday Weeds, with all the plants mentioned above in full flower.
There is no doubt that Rosebay Willowherb (named for its colour and for its bay-shaped leaves) is a most attractive plant, with its pink and carmine petals. Bees think so too, which is another reason to be glad of its profligacy. Its leaves are also unusual: the veins do not go to the edge of the leaf but curl back on themselves in loops, as you can just about see in the picture below. This makes it easy to identify even when not in flower.Rosebay Willowherb’s wide distribution means that has been used for a variety of purposes by many different communities. Here are just a few of them, from the Plantlives website:
- The Cree people of North America used the fibre from the stems as sewing thread
- The Kitasoo people used this same thread to make fishing nets
- The Quinault and Skokomish tribes mixed the white fluffy seed fibre with duck feathers to make blankets, and the people of the Klallam mixed the seed fibre with dog hair to weave cloth.
- The Blackfoot tribe rubbed the flowers on to their mittens and rawhide thongs to waterproof them
- The Tanana tribe used the flowers as a mosquito repellent
- The Thompson tribe regarded the flowering of Rosebay Willowherb as an indication that the deer were fat enough to be hunted, and for the Cree it was a sign that the moose would soon be entering the mating season.
Many peoples used Rosebay Willowherb as food – the shoots, leaves, flowers and roots have all been used, both as salad and as a potherb. In Alaska, it is used for everything from icecream to syrup, and you can find a recipe for Fireweed Jelly here.
Monofloral (single plant) honey from ‘Fireweed’ is made in Alaska and areas of northwestern Canada, and is considered to be a premium product, slightly spicy and delicious.
In Russia, the flowers are used to make Koporye or Russian tea, which was exported to Western Europe as a competitor to Indian and Chinese tea during the 19th Century. It was fermented and dried in the same way as ‘real’ tea but had the advantage of being caffeine free. However, the East India Company was so threatened by the success of Koporye that they circulated a rumour about the way that the tea was produced, causing the trade to collapse. These days only a small amount of the tea is made, for local consumption.
Like Broad-leaved Willowherb, Rosebay Willowherb is also used in traditional Austrian medicine for urinary complaints of all kinds. In North America, it has been used for everything from boils to cancer. Maybe its rarity in the UK until the last century has restricted its historical medicinal and culinary uses here, but who knows what we will come up with in the future?
One inspiring use for Rosebay Willowherb is as a way of recolonising areas which have been damaged by fire, or even by oil spills. As it grows, it also provides nectar for any intrepid insects which venture past. In short, it is the most extraordinarily generous plant, capable of all kinds of uses and beautiful to boot. Long may its flowers herald the high-days and holidays of summer.