From June to September, the countryside is patterned with swathes of pink courtesy of the plant Rosebay willowherb or Fireweed as it is also known, with flowers over a metre high, this striking plant is native throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere.
It is sometimes considered a weed due to its ability to spread and cover large areas of ground, the seeds are spread by the wind and have hairs attached to aid them in travelling long distances, it has been estimated that between 20 – 50% of seeds are carried over 100 metres by the wind, and often for far greater distances. For many though it is the symbol of summer, in fact Rosebay willowherb was voted the County flower of London in 2002 and it is the floral emblem of the Yukon under its name Fireweed.
Rosebay willowherb tolerates a broad range of climatic conditions, it prefers slightly acidic soil but grows well almost anywhere especially in open areas such as waste ground, embankments, rocky land, mountain sides and open woodland, in fact about the only place it won’t grow is in waterlogged areas, but even then it will flourish around the edges of lakes and ponds. Rosebay willowherb grows very well on recently disturbed ground and it is often used to re-establish vegetation and wildlife after traumatic events such as fires or oil spills, the seeds of the plant germinate especially well after being exposed to high temperatures which is where its other name Fireweed comes from, for example during and after the Blitz in the UK it naturally colonized areas that had been bombed and where the ground had been burnt, adding some much needed colour and life.
Aside from looking spectacular, Fireweed has many other uses. Honey made form the nectar of Fireweed is much prized, bees love the bright flowers and can be seen making the most of the blooms during the summer months. The young shoots of the plant were often gathered early in the season by Native American people and used as salad greens, they are at their best when young and tender; as the plant matures it becomes tough and somewhat bitter to taste. The health benefits to be gained were valuable however, a good source of vitamin C and pro-vitamin A. ‘Willow herb’ tea is fairly well known as a digestive aid, in Russia, the leaves of Rosebay willowherb were often used as tea substitute and could be sold to help with the family income, this brew was known in Western Europe as ‘Kapor ‘tea and it is still made today albeit on a much smaller scale as regular tea has become more available and familiar.
So there we have it, the bright and cheerful flower we see along the side of roads or the railway track has a rich history and a valuable place in society, why not pick some, it lasts well as a cut flower, or simply enjoy it while it lasts out there in the countryside.