Synonyms: Epilobium angustifolium, Chamaenerion angustifolium.
Rosebay Willowherb is a striking plant, growing up to 5 feet tall and displaying a vibrant display of pink flowers (last year, I spotted it from half a mile away on a walk).
It is commonly known as Fireweed, especially in North America, due to it’s tendency to be the first plant to colonise fire-ravished areas. In the UK, it earned the name Bombweed, becoming a familiar sight after the Blitz in the 1940’s.
Plant Life assigned it as London’s county flower for this reason.
There are several species of Willowherb in the UK and if you have a garden, I can almost guarantee you’ll have some Willowherbs growing in it. They are all edible, to my knowledge, however Rosebay is the one that gets most attention among wild food enthusiasts. I have eaten some of the smaller ones in my garden and I can understand why they don’t often get mentioned.
Season and Edibility
Rosebay Willowherb is a perennial plant that tends to grow in large colonies. The young shoots, which can be eaten like asparagus, start to appear around April but it’s not until July when it’s in full flower that it will become very noticeable (especially when travelling by train).
The leaves somewhat resemble the leaves of the Willow Tree to which the name alludes.
All parts of the plant are edible. The leaves can be dried to make a green tea or fermented to make a black tea popular in Russia named Ivan Chai.
The flowers can be used in jams, jellies, drinks and syrups or to add colour to cakes or salads.
As the stems mature and become woody they can be spilt open to reveal a sweet and nutritious pith. Paul Kirtley talks us through the process in his blog post, Taking The Pith.
Several online sources mention that an infusion of Rosebay Willowherb leaves is said to “stupefy a person” this seems to come directly from a book published in 1931, A Modern Herbal by Maud Grieve. I am unable to find any confirmation of this but I know of several people who regularly and willingly “stupefy” themselves with alcohol…
Health Benefits and Medicinal use
The leaves are a source of protein and carbohydrates, minerals, including calcium, potassium and manganese, and are high in vitamins A and C.
Medicinally, it has many traditional uses and is used in the treatment of digestive problems including diarrhoea. The tea has been used as a treatment for prostate cancer.
Found to be effective against ulcers of the stomach and mouth and traditionally used for many ailments including migraines, insomnia, infections and colds.
Properties of the plant is cleansing, soothing astringent and has been used topically for healing minor wounds, burns, rashes and infections as well as inflammation of the ears, mouth and throat.
Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal include a recipe for Rosebay Willowherb syrup as a “pleasant remedy for childhood diarrhoea” in their excellent book, Hedgerow Medicine.
Other Uses For Rosebay Willowherb
A popular plant for survival enthusiasts for it’s nutritional offerings and medicinal benefits as well as uses as a cordage, the fluffy seeds make an excellent fire starting material and were widely used as insulating material and woven with other fibres for clothing.
The inner pith can be dried and rubbed on face and hands as protection from the cold.
Never eat any wild plant until you are 100% sure of identification and edibility. It is wise to try new foods in small amounts to test for sensitivity/allergy.