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Rosebay Willowherb

Other names: Fireweed, Bombweed

Epilobium angustifolium

 

Rosebay Willowherb has long lance shaped leaves and form a spike of pink flowers on top of a reddened stem. It is famous for being one of the first plants to recolonise an area after fire, and apparently did rather well during the destruction of London and the surrounding areas during the Blitz, brightening an otherwise grim scene. Rosebay Willowherb flower spike - foraging & identification

There are many species of willowherb that look very much alike, producing impressive stands of pink flowers. The varieties seem to readily hybridise so in some cases it can become tricky to tell which you are looking at though thankfully most, if not all, are edible (see notes on the Greater Willowherb below)!

 

Willowherb is widespread throughout Britain and Europe, growing on mass in thick stands usually near water, though sometimes forming dense thickets in drier woodland clearings and waste ground. It’s apparently not all that fussy and will make itself at home anywhere with good sunlight. It grows fast appearing as seedlings in April and May and going on to produce tall spikes of bright pink flowers - sometimes as tall as a person if well watered.

The flowers open in stages between Jun and September and are very popular with bees and other insects. The seeds develop quickly in long pods after each flower fades and progress into an equally impressive fluffy display.

 Rosebay Willowherb leaves - foraging & identification

Lookalikes:

Greater Willowherb Epilobium hirsutum flowers - CAUTIONGreater Willowherb Epilobium hirsutum flowers - CAUTIONThe Greater Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum) is possibly the most similar in appearance though a more branching plant, bearing it’s pink flowers on a wider arrangement of leaved stalks instead of the one upright spike. It’s leaves are much wider and more rounded in shape than the Rosebay, with fine toothed edges a fine covering of soft hairs.

Although historically used as a medicine with edible leaves Greater Willowherb has been reported to have caused a violent poisoning, involving convulsions! I wonder if the reported incident could have been a case of misidentification with another plant or a freak allergic reaction as in some other edibles, but until the matter is cleared up should be avoided.

 

Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) could be confused to the untrained eye though the flowers are presented much closer to the stem in staggered groups rather than the distinctive spike of the Rosebay.

 

Another prolifically growing and very beautiful pink flowered plant you may encounter by the riverside is the invasive Himalayan Balsam (it is also edible so no harm can be had in gathering it too – in fact it’s encouraged!). Teams of waterways volunteers put great efforts every year into removing the plant blamed for crowding out our native plants by rivers and stream banks. Just how ‘evil’ the plant is an ongoing argument but as it stands it is an illegal alien so if you can’t bear pulling it up, at least do your best not to participate in spreading it any further!

 

Technically Rosebay Willowherb itself is an ‘escaped’ invading species introduced by the Victorians.

 

How to eat it:

The simplest method is to add opened flowers and younger leaves raw to salads. Earlier in the season blanch, wilt or steam young shoots and developing flowers to eat as a vegetable similar to Asparagus (only pick young plants you are confident in the identification of!).

 

Towards the end of Summer the gelatinous pith from inside the thick stems can be removed and is high in carbohydrate. It’s most useful for thickening soups and stews, though can be eaten raw with a texture and flavour likened to a peppery cucumber. Choose plants that are large enough to begin flowering but that have not yet dried and gone to seed, cut low to the ground where the stem is thickest – split along its length to reveal the edible inner core.

 

Have you tried Willowherb? Let us know what you think of it in the comments below!

 

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Sarah is an artist and writer with a lifetime interest in camping and survival techniques.

Living the #vanlife since before it was a hashtag and touring on two wheels with her husband Ryan, they have a wealth of camping and motorcycling knowledge to share, and know a thing or two about packing light! read more


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