Every herb garden should grow rosebay willowherb (or fireweed as it is also known) for a splash of colour and a buzz of bees.
Where woodlands are cleared, buildings fall and fire scorches the earth, so rosebay willowherb will rise like a phoenix from the ashes. This exciting plant also makes a bold wild edible.
Tall spikes of purple-red flowers amongst elongated, spear-shaped green leaves characterise this striking plant. The dramatic foliage takes over open ground turning entire landscapes ablaze.
The creeping root structure aids the plant to spread over large patches of ground and the small seed pods hold an abundance of seeds attached to white, fluffy puffs dispersed by the wind.
Deciduous woodland, coniferous woodland, cultivated land, dunes & dune slacks, heath, moor, mountain rocks, mountains, riverbanks, roadsides, scrub and walls.
Parts used for food
Leaves, shoots, stem, flowers.
Spring: Leaves, shoots, root.
Summer: Stem, flowers.
Food uses of rosebay willowherb
For centuries in Russia, rosebay willowherb was fermented to make herbal tea, nicknamed ‘Ivan Chai’ in Britain and Europe. It was eventually replaced by the black and green teas from India and China but is still drunk in some parts of Russia.2
The flavour of this fiery-looking plant has been described as mildly sweet like a cucumber or asparagus.3 The shoots can be cooked like asparagus.4 The leaves and stem can be lightly boiled or steamed like spinach.3
Rosebay willowherb has ninety times more vitamin A and four times more vitamin C than oranges.5
Herbal medicine uses
Few records exist of the herb’s use in folk medicine in Britain, but it was used in Europe and America, especially for skin complaints, whooping cough in children, asthma and stomach disorders.4
In modern herbals, its properties are often listed as astringent, antidiarrhoeic, demulcent (soothing and anti-inflammatory), haemostatic (stops bleeding) and mildly antimicrobial.7
Fireweed is such as a good source of nectar that US beekeepers sometimes follow loggers with their hives.4 Fireweed honey is said to be light-coloured and finely flavoured.8
The plant’s tannins might aggravate constipation, gastric ulcers, inflammatory conditions and anaemia.9 Consult your health advisor before use.
There is little information about the plant’s safety during pregnancy and when breastfeeding.
Ecology & Entomology
Humans are not the only species that benefit from rosebay willowherb, which is why it is important to learn to forage sustainably. The following critters also need the plant:
- Adalia decempunctata (ten-spot ladybird)
- Bromius obscurus (beetle)
- Coccinella septempunctata (seven-spot ladybird)
- Coccinella undecimpunctata (eleven-spot ladybird)
- Craspedolepta nebulosa
- Craspedolepta subpunctata
- Crocicreas coronatum (fungi)
- Dasineura kiefferiana (gall midge)
- Deilephila elpenor (elephant hawk-moth)
- Deilephila porcellus (small elephant hawk-moth)
- Harmonia axyridis (harlequin ladybird)
- Hyles gallii (bedstraw hawk-moth)
- Mompha raschkiella (little cosmet)
- Mompha conturbatella (moth)
- Mompha sturnipennella (moth)
- Mompha raschkiella (moth)
- Niesslia exosporioides (fungi)
- Pucciniastrum epilobii (fireweed rust)
- Scythris inspersella (moth)
- Sonronius dahlbomi (leafhopper)
- Spargania luctuata (white banded carpet moth)
- Runyon, L. (2007) The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide. Shiloh, NJ: Wild Food Company.
- Mirzagitova, L. (2007) Extract from ‘Inspiring Stories from Ecovillages: Experiences with Ecological Technologies and Practices’. Ecovillages for Sustainable Rural Development with EU’s Baltic Sea Region Programme.
- Wyse Jackson, P. (2013) Ireland’s Generous Nature: The Past and Present Uses of Wild Plants in Ireland. St. Louis, MO: Missouri Botanical Garden Press.
- Watts, D. C. (2007) Dictionary of Plant Lore. Amsterdam?; Boston: Academic Press.
- Rogers, R. (2014) Fireweed – A Treasured Medicine of the Boreal Forest. Discovery Phytomedicine. 1 (1), 10.
- Hatfield, G. (2008) Hatfield’s Herbal: The Secret History of British Plants. London: Penguin.
- Bartram, T. (1998) Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. New York: Marlowe.
- Facciola, S. (1998) Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants. Vista, CA: Kampong Publications.
- Mills, S. & Bone, K. (2005) The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety. St. Louis, Mo.: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone.