Rosebay Willowherb – A Foraging Guide to Its Food, Medicine and Other Uses

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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.

Scientific name

Epilobium angustifolium

Family

Onagraceae.

Botanical description

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.

Status

Perennial. Native.

Habitat

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.

Harvest time

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

Nutritional profile

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

Other uses

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

Cautions

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.

About The Author

Robin HarfordRobin Harford is a plant-based forager, ethnobotanical researcher, and wild food educator. He is the author of Edible and Medicinal Wild Plants of Britain and Ireland.

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References

  1. Runyon, L. (2007) The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide. Shiloh, NJ: Wild Food Company.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Watts, D. C. (2007) Dictionary of Plant Lore. Amsterdam?; Boston: Academic Press.
  5. Rogers, R. (2014) Fireweed – A Treasured Medicine of the Boreal Forest. Discovery Phytomedicine. 1 (1), 10.
  6. Hatfield, G. (2008) Hatfield’s Herbal: The Secret History of British Plants. London: Penguin.
  7. Bartram, T. (1998) Bartram’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine. New York: Marlowe.
  8. Facciola, S. (1998) Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants. Vista, CA: Kampong Publications.
  9. Mills, S. & Bone, K. (2005) The Essential Guide to Herbal Safety. St. Louis, Mo.: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone.

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Share your experience. Leave a note for others

  1. My grandfather was a locomotive driver for a mining firm in the UK, He called it Railway Flower due to its propensity to grow along the railway lines all around the country.

    Reply
  2. I remember this as a child along the Railway Banks or any bit of wasteland, cycle path etc, it’s so beautiful, I love tall striking plants. There use to be another plant too, as kids we used to associate it with Snakes, don’t ask me why!

    Reply
  3. I love seeing this splendid plant, it reminds me of the demolition areas near my junior school in the 1960’s, Us kids would climb the rumble and jump over empty foundations as a way of letting of steam after school. I noticed this wondrous plant then for it’s beautiful colour and whenever I see it it now, it transports me right back.

    Reply
  4. At the village pond in Latchingdon, Essex I have noticed Rosebay growing very happily with its roots in water. However, we usually see this thriving in arid conditions. This shows how adaptable this plant is. In my block paving, when stressed it can set seed when just a couple of inches high, yet given the chance it will rise several feet. Around the pond, the plant is putting on lots of lush green growth, not yet resorting to flowering. The water level in the pond, however is worryingly low, due to the dry spell that we are in…..

    Reply
  5. DON’T let it floewer if you are reckless enough to let it grow in the garden. If it seeds you will have it absolutely everywhere before you have time to turn round.
    And your neighbours will be furious as it will seed all over their gardens too. I spent ages pulling it out yesterday and there is always more…and I certainly didn’t plant it!

    Reply

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