Rosebay willowherb is a herbaceous plant whose botanical name is Chamerion angustifolium. Commonly known as fireweed in North America and as great willowherb in some parts of Canada, it belongs to the Onagraceae family.

This plant is defined by a highly branched rhizome and stems that can reach a height of about 1.50cm. Its beautiful flowers can be of different shades of pink, from the lighter one to purple-red and violet. They are considered a symbol of rebirth, as they stubbornly thrive on the least hospitable terrains, such as rocky and gravelly ones, and even on rubble. In fact, rosebay willow herb flowers are usually the first ones to sprout after a fire or the collapse of a building.

Rosebay willowherb: Beneficial properties

Rosebay willowherb boasts many beneficial properties and it’s regarded as a very useful resource in herbal medicine, especially considering its virtual total lack of side effects (although, of course, exaggerating is never recommended!). Among its active ingredients there are flavonoids, gallic acid derivatives, mucilage, oleanolic acid, ursolic acid and sugars, but it is also rich in vitamin A and vitamin C.

This plant is very effective against mouth infections, ulcers and respiratory problems, from oropharyngeal oropharyngeal to bronchial, and those affecting the larynx, the nasal mucosa, the vocal organs and sinuses. In some European countries it is used as a remedy for benign prostatic hypertrophy and diseases of the kidneys and urinary tract infections.

The Russians commonly consume rosebay willowherb in the form of herbal tea and consider it useful for its soothing and astringent properties, also using it as restorative tonic. A good rosebay willowherb herbal tea is recommended in case of laryngitis, hoarseness, pharyngitis and nasopharyngitis. It also has expectorant properties and helps to thin the phlegm. It is also useful in case of diarrhoea, due to its aforementioned astringent properties.

Besides the recommended internal uses (herbal teas and infusions), rosebay willowherb can also be used externally in case of dermatosis or simply as skin cleanser.

Botanical Name: Chamaenerion angustifolium (previously Epilobium angustifolium)

Common Names: Rosebay Willowherb, Bombweed, Singerweed, London’s Ruin

Family: Onagraceae – Willowherb/Evening Primrose Family

Parts Used: Leaves and flowers

Botany & Identification: Widespread in the British Isles & spanning Europe, temperate Asia & parts of the Americas, this tall perennial gives a beautiful pink brush over the landscape in summer. Spreading readily by its bee pollinated seed heads and by lateral roots it quickly develops large stands up to 2m high. Often seen along railways and roadsides where by the passing vehicles aid seed dispersal, it is also common to forest edges & meadows. Fireweed is noted for attracting wildlife and usually flowers from July through to September, with seeds ripening from August. Lanceolate (willow like, hence the name Willowherb) alternate leaves with a smooth margin spiral up the stem. The latin epithet angustifolium means ‘narrow leaved’. The pink flowers grow on spikes and are 2-3cm across.

Growing & Harvesting: Fireweed is very easy to find in the wild and is suited to well drained soils, thriving in full sun or semi shade. It is one of the first plants to seed after disturbance like wildfires.

Leaves and stems are harvested to eat in the spring, with leaves and flowers harvested for medicinal purposes when the plant is in flower. Herbalist Henriette Kress uses only the leaves, harvested just before flowering, and gathers the flowers to beautify tea blends.

Edibility & Nutrition: In the spring Fireweed shoots can be eaten raw or cooked – similar to how you may steam asparagus, and contain protein, Vitamin C, flavonoids and beta-carotene.The young leaves should be pointing upwards. The young leaves can be eaten like spinach, but as the plant develops the leaves become fibrous and unpleasant to cook with. Leaves are high in Vitamin C and Protein. The flowers are edible, quite bitter, but look pretty in salads etc. Larger stalks can be split open and the apparently sweet inner pith harvested.

Constituents: Tannins, Protein, Vitamin C, Carotene, trace minerals, mucilage.

Energetics & Qualities: Cooling, Drying

Tastes: Bitter, Astringent

Uses: Fireweed has a wide distribution and has been used by many different cultures. In the Americas the herb has been used as medicine by indigenous people from Alaska, right the way down the West Coast of North America.

  • ‘ For me, fireweed represents the promise that beauty will return after bodily sickness or environmental destruction. When woodlands are damaged from fire, or clear-cutting, it is fireweed that brings the first promise of recovery. It reminds us that nature has her healing cycle too, one initiated by this lush, fiery medicine springing up in abundance.’
  • – Elise Khron (2017)

Balancing digestion: Just as Fireweed helps to begin the cycle of succession, opening up ecological niches for other plant species and thereby increasing diversity and strengthening the system, we can also think of it taking on a similar role in our bodies. The herb supports the digestive environment where beneficial gut flora can flourish and increase in diversity. This enhances the efficiency in the small intestine and colon of bringing in nutrients and removing waste products. Western modern medicine is rediscovering the importance of a healthy functioning digestive system, relating it to a strong immune system and mental health. Many traditional healing practices have viewed healthy digestion as central to maintaining health.

The bitterness of the leaf increases general enzyme production in the stomach lining and pancreas, which results in it being useful to take before dietary changes, or drank regularly to aid digestion of foods that aren’t consumed very often. It’s astringency further helps to tone the intestines and can be used for chronic low-grade diarrhoea or IBS. It can be used in the same way after food poisoning, but note that as the herb is not antibacterial, the infection should be treated first, with Fireweed helping the body to recover afterwards. Herbalist Henriette Kress uses it as a base in tea blends for digestive issues and it was traditionally used to ease the ‘green diarrhoea’ which happened when folks changed their diet from winter stored foods to fresh spring greens. Fireweed is also astringent and therefore tightens and tones tissue in the colon. The anti-fungal properties extend digestive rebalancing to growths such as Candida. The herb is best used over time, slowly allowing the body to strengthen the digestion.

Soothing action: The herb is high in mucilage (especially the spring shoots) and tannins, giving it its ability to both soothe and tone and so being an effective anti-inflammatory. This astringent and emollient action can be used for the digestive tract, sore throats, inflammation of the mouth etc.

Fireweed’s antispasmodic and mucilaginous properties are also useful for asthma, whooping cough, hiccoughs, coughs and intestinal spasms, with the herb also traditionally being used for sore throats and lung congestion .

History & Folklore:

  • The flowers open first at the bottom of the flowering spike, and then creep up to the top of the plant in succession. In Russia the top flowers opening indicated the start of autumn.
  • In Liverpool the herb was known as bombweed after the city was heavily bombed in WW2, leading to this plant springing up from the rubble.
  • After the Great Fire of London in 1666 the herb germinated and grew in the city getting its local name London’s Ruin.
  • In Clydebank the Singer Sewing Machine Factory was one of the casualties of WW2 giving it the name Singerweed.
  • Bees love the herb with Fireweed honey being very popular in Alaska.
  • Cordage can be made from the long stems.

Preparations & Dosages: 1-2 tsp dried herb to a cup up to three times a day

Cautions & Contraindications: None known

A note on other Willowherb species:

Other Willowherbs of the genus Epilobium spp. Have also been used medicinally. The UK has about 10 species which hybridise readily. Herbalists Julie Brunton-Seal & Matthew Seal state that any of the willowherbs can be used with the exception of Great Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum). The small willowherbs are a specific remedy for prostate problems, helping to shrink tissues, stop cell proliferation and normalising urinary function. Henriette Kress also uses Fireweed leaf to treat benign enlarged prostate. The small flowered willow herbs are effective to a wide range of bladder and urinary issues with the astringent and diuretic action toneing and detoxifiing the urinary tract.

Julie Brunton-Seal & Matthew Seal (2008) Hedgerow Medicine, Merlin Unwin Books

Henriette Kress (2013) Practical Herbs

Elise Khron (2017) http://wildfoodsandmedicines.com/fireweed/

Shi Yao Lian (2017) http://buddhasalchemy.com/fireweed-home-apothecary/

Rosebay willowherb Chamerion angustifolium

A striking wild plant with tall spires of large pink flowers and leaves that grow like a staircase around the stem. Its leaves resemble those of the willow species, hence the name.

Rosebay willowherb is a fine example of a ‘pioneer species’ – the first plants to colonise a barren area with very little competition (such as the sites of forest fires). For this reason it was a familiar sight following the London Blitz (see below).

Common throughout England, Wales and south-east Scotland. Rarer in Ireland.

As a pioneer plant, rosebay willowherb thrives on waste ground. Keep an eye out for it when travelling by car or train. It likes to grow in dry, relatively open areas. It can typically be found in forest clearings, beside tracks and trails, on recently disturbed ground and on well-drained banks of rivers. Since it can colonise disturbed sites, even following an oil spill, it is often used to reestablish vegetation.

Best time to see

Late summer, when it flowers: July-September.

Did you know?

Commonly known as Fireweed in North America, it often appears after forest fires and other events which leave the earth scorched. This tendency also gave rise to the name Bombweed in the UK. London has indelible memories of the drifts of this flower in the bomb sites of the second world war. As a pioneer plant it was one of the first to colonise the scarred earth, and its vivid spires were synonymous with London’s revival. As such, it was a popular choice as the County Flower of our capital. Today it mingles with buddleias and Michaelmas daisies on railway banks, old walls and waste ground.

Uses of Rosebay willowherb hare multiple, from natural cordage, to clothing, to fire-lighting to edible roots, shoots, leaves and flowers as well as numerous medicinal applications, some of which are currently under investigation. It can be used to treat cuts or pus-filled boils by placing a piece of raw stem on the afflicted area.

Many uses are well-known to native peoples from Alaska to Siberia. In Alaska, candies, syrups, jellies and even ice cream are made from Rosebay willowherb, whilst monofloral honey made primarily from the nectar has a distinctive, spiced flavour. In Russia, the leaves of the plant were traditionally used as tea since they can undergo fermentation much like real tea. Koporye tea or Ivan Chai is still commonly sold and consumed in Russia today.

Luontoportti

Chamaenerion angustifolium

  • Latin synonym: Epilobium angustifolium, Chamerion angustifolium
  • Name also: Willow Herb, Fireweed, Great Willow-herb, Rosebay Willow-herb, Rose-bay Willowherb, French-willow
  • Family: Willowherb Family – Onagraceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Strong root, with subterraneous runners. Forms stands.
  • Height: 50–150 cm (20–60 in.). Stem unbranched, glabrous (upper part sometimes hairy).
  • Flower: Corolla slightly zygomorphic, purple (sometimes pink–white), approx. 2–4 cm (0.8–1.6 in.) broad; petals 4, entire, slightly different sizes. Sepals 4, hairy, brownish red. Stamens 8. Gynoecium fused, a single carpel, stigma 4-lobed. Inflorescence a long, abundantly flowered raceme.
  • Leaves: Alternate, stalkless. Blade lanceolate, almost with entire margins, glabrous, underside bluish grey.
  • Fruit: Tubular, densely haired, 4-valved, 5–8 cm (2–3.2 in.) long capsule. Seeds plumed
  • Habitat: Light-filled forest heaths, broad-leaved forests, rich mixed swamps, precipices, rocky outcrops, logging clearings, burned areas, disused fields, railway embankments, banks, wasteland.
  • Flowering time: June–August.

Almost all Finns recognise rosebay willowherb – although not so many are likely to be aware that as many as 17 other willowherbs grow wild in Finland. Rosebay willowherb is very different from its Finnish relatives and is one of the most handsome flowers in the country that grows on poor soil. It often flowers very profusely, although it is so common that it is not appreciated as it should be. In order to ensure cross-pollination rosebay willowherb only opens a small part of its inflorescence at any given time, starting at the bottom and moving upwards. Each flower develops its stamens first and the stigma opens to receive pollen only when stamens are withering (protandrous species). Its common pollinators are honeybees, bumblebees and butterflies. Its downy seeds leave on the wind from their large stands at the end of summer. The light seeds (up to 80,000 from one plant) get everywhere and are usually the first to take over slowly uncovered areas.

Rosebay willowherb germinates best in open, nitrogenous land and thrives in burned areas, logging sites, disused fields and roadsides. They increase explosively into large stands and are typical pioneer plants. The stand quickly grows past other plants, but on the other hand it retreats quickly as the vegetation ages and shade from trees increases. It can persevere for a while in forest shade however, thanks to its strong rootstock.

Rosebay willowherb has been believed in Finland to increase the milk production in cattle, and was thus often added to feed. The plant is certainly very nutritious, and young spring shoots are good for people too. Shoots can be boiled in water and eaten with butter like asparagus or bean stalks, and the young leaves can be eaten as they are. Dried leaves make a good tea, the root can substitute for coffee and even be ground into flour for bread, while the red buds lend colour to confectionery, salads and desserts. It is an incomparable honey plant at the end of summer. It is the provincial flower of South Ostrobothnia.

Other species from the same family

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Irish Wildflowers Irish Wild Plants Irish Wild Flora Wildflowers of Ireland

Also known as Epilobium angustifolium, this beautiful, tall, vigorous, showy perennial graces the margins of woodland, bogs, railway embankments and roadsides from June to September and can reach a height of almost 2 metres. It has slightly unequal, notched, four-petalled deep pinkish-purple flowers (15-25mm across) growing up a long spike. A hairy plant, it has oblong to lanceolate, coarsely toothed leaves. In autumn the downy seed pods split into four and releasing numerous long plumes of cottony hairs with tiny light seeds. This plant has become quite widespread across Ireland, possibly because it seems to thrive on disturbed land. This plant is native to part of the country and has been introduced to other areas. Formerly known as Chamerion angustifolium and Epilobium angustifolium, it belongs to the family Onagraceae.

I first identified this plant in Dalkey Quarry in 1975 and photographed it close to the Grand Canal at Vicarstown, Co Kildare in 2004.

If you are satisfied you have correctly identified this plant, please submit your sighting to the National Biodiversity Data Centre

ROSEBAY WILLOWHERB (Chamerion angustifolim)

How to Identify Rosebay Willowherb
(Edible)

Common names
Rosebay Willowherb, Fireweed
Botanical name
Chamerion angustifolium
Meaning of botanical name
The first part, Chamerion, comes from the Greek words for low to the ground, chamai, and oldeander, nerion. Angustifolium is derived from Latin words for narrow, angustus, and leaves, folium.
Known hazards
Said to produce a stupefying effect if too much is consumed

Could be confused with
Other Willowherbs, but Rosebay Willowherb has much narrower leaves
Food plant of
Uncertain, but visited by snails and slugs

Range and distribution
Common over the Northern Hemisphere.

Habitat
Disturbed soil, waste ground, woodland clearings, garden borders, and fire sites. It is an early pioneer plant and often the first to return after a fire, which is where ones of its common names, Fireweed, comes from

Physical characteristics
Starts as a rosette of lance-shaped leaves, which then becomes a tall stalk. The flowers form in a cluster at the top of the stalk and each is a deep pink colour with four petals.

After pollination, seed pods develop that split revealing a white “fluff”, within which the seeds are carried on the wind.

Folklore, tall tales, and not so folklore:
In Russia, the flowering of Rosebay Willowherb is said to indicate the disappearance of summer and its full bloom indicates the start of autumn

Edible use
The young shoots can be steamed and eaten like asparagus, and the leaves can be added to salads. However, raw leaves can be bitter. The flowers can also be added to salads and are less bitter.

The pith can be removed from the stem and used as a thickener for soups and stews

Herbal
Has been used as an intestinal astringent and as an antispasmodic in asthma attacks, respiratory infections and hiccups. Please visit your doctor if you have a medical complaint

Miscellaneous
After the eruption of Mount St Helens in the USA, over 81% of the first plants to appear were Fireweed/Rosebay Willowherb.

The stems are used to make a useful bushcrafting cordage, while the fluffy seed heads makes great tinder

Willowherb Information: Tips For The Control Of Willowherb

What may be a noxious weed to one gardener is a thing of beauty to another. This might not be the case with willowherb weeds. It is true the plant has brilliant hot pink flowers similar to primrose blooms, but the ability to adapt to almost any environment and rapidly spread through seeds and rhizomes make control of willowherb challenging. This annoying plant is an aggressive competitor to native and cultivated plants. Read on for some clues on how to get rid of willowherb once and for all.

Willowherb Information

Willowherb (Epilobium) is a Class B noxious weed in many states. In its native regions, it is simply part of the natural flora and a beneficial part of the landscape. But when soils are disturbed, the seeds spread far beyond their home turf and can cause quite a problem for farmers, land management professionals and home gardeners.

There are many varieties of willowherb weeds. Hairy, Canadian, Tall, Greater, you name it; there is a species of the weed. Most site themselves near water of some sort, but they are

also adaptable to dry, disturbed areas. Most of the West Coast of the United States classes them as problem plants due to their aggressive spread.

They are tall plants, 3 to 6 feet in height, with narrow profiles and thick, rigid stems that are herbaceous rather than woody. Flowers appear in late spring through late summer, adorning the plant with richly colored pink blooms. Full willowherb information would not be complete without mentioning the fruits. Seeds are small hard four-chambered capsules, brown as a nut and containing numerous tiny seeds. The capsule splits open and releases these tiny egg-shaped seeds, each equipped with a hairy tuft at the end which captures the wind and sails far and wide.

How to Get Rid of Willowherb Weeds

The problem is that willowherbs are remarkably resistant to most herbicides. It can take years of persistence before the plants are eradicated in a garden bed. Cut off any flowers before they produce seed heads. Seedlings can be killed with black plastic covers creating a sterilization effect through solarization. Mature plants are dug out deeply and thrown away. Don’t try to compost these plants, as they will simply take over your compost heap.

Chemical Control of Willowherb

Chemicals should be a method of last resort, as they tend to do as much harm as good. Indeed, with this weed, control with herbicides is erratic and may take several seasonal applications even with good cultural methods.

Glyphosate is not effective on its own, so put down the Round Up. The most effective treatments have been shown to be a broad spectrum combined with a pre-emergent application. The pre-emergent keeps seeds from germinating and reduces seedlings. Glyphosate can eventually navigate the vascular system of mature plants and kill them.

It is important to keep up on deadheading during this period of treatment in order to reduce seed spread to untreated areas. Both treatments will need to be done for at least 2 years for the most effective control.

Willowherbs
 (
Epilobium ciliatum, E. brachycarpum)

Click on images to enlarge

Willowherbs are native broadleaf plants but usually require a disturbance to establish. Although considered desirable members of natural habitats, they can be weedy in managed urban and agricultural sites. Two species of willowherbs common in California are the perennial fringed willowherb, E. ciliatum, and tall annual willowherb, E. brachycarpum, a summer annual.

Fringed willowherb is found throughout California to 13,500 feet (4100 m). It inhabits moist or dry disturbed areas in plant communities including those in meadows and wetlands, in agricultural areas, wet and moist sites, and nurseries. Tall annual willowherb is found throughout California, except for the Channel Islands and deserts, to 11,000 feet (3300 m). It inhabits dry, open sites in many plant communities, unmanaged, disturbed areas, landscaped areas, and agricultural sites.

Fringed willowherb–many plant communities, meadows, wetlands, streambanks, ditches, irrigation canals, nurseries, orchards, vineyards, and landscaped areas.
Tall annual willowherb–fields, agronomic crop fields, orchards, vineyards, forestry sites, and roadsides.

Seedling

In both fringed willowherb and tall annual willowherb, leaves are initially opposite to one another and sometimes are tinged red.

Fringed willowherb: Cotyledons (seed leaves) are egg shaped with a rounded to
slightly squared tip and hairless. The first true leaves are oval.

Tall annual willowherb: Cotyledons are broadly egg shaped to almost round, approximately 1/8 to 1/5 of an inch (3–5 mm) long and wide, hairless, with a slightly squared tip. The first true leaves are oblong football shaped, about 2/5 to 3/5 of an inch (10–14 mm) long and approximately 1/8 to 1/5 of an inch (3–5 mm) wide, hairless, and with edges that sometimes have weak teeth.

Mature plant

Fringed willowherb is a loosely clumping plant usually with more than one stem from the roots that branch in the upper portion. Stems are weakly woody but not peeling at the base as occurs in tall annual willowherb, and sometimes reddish. The mature plant can grow to about 6-1/2 feet (2 m) tall. Leafy rosettes are usually found at the base of the plant. Leaves are lance shaped or football to egg shaped, range from about 2/5 to 6 inches (1–15 cm) long, sometimes tinged red, have short stalks or no stalks, and usually have serrate edges. Leaves are opposite to one another along the base of the stem and generally are alternate to one another above it. Lower leaves are hairless or hairy, while upper leaves are sparsely to densely hairy. Upper leaves do not have clusters of smaller leaves where their stalks meet the stem (axils) as is found in tall annual willowherb.

Tall annual willowherb grows erect and usually has one main stem that branches in the upper portion, is weakly woody, and peels at the base when mature. Branches grow ascending (sloping upward) to almost straight and are nearly hairless, except for the tips, which often have some glandular hairs. The plant can grow to about 6-1/2 feet (2 m) tall. Leaves are narrowly football shaped, mostly 2/5 to 2 inches (1–5 cm) long, nearly hairless, often fold upward, have no stalks or very short stalks, and have edges that are smooth or have a few small teeth. Often the upper leaves have clusters of smaller leaves where their stalks meet the stem (axils).

Flowers

Flowers have four, white to violet-pink notched petals, which are produced at the end of long, slender stalks that attach along the flowering stem forming a flower head.

Fringed willowherb flowers bloom from June through September. The flowering head is covered sparsely to densely with hairs that are sometimes glandular, and leaves remain attached to it.

Tall annual willowherb flowers bloom from May through September. Flower heads are nearly hairless and have very few leaves. Flower stalks generally have some glandular hairs.

Fruits

Fruits consist of slender, straight, cylindrical capsules with four chambers. Capsules eventually split open and peel back, exposing the seeds.

Fringed willowherb: Capsules are 3/5 to 4 inches (1.5–10 cm) long, hairy, and stalkless or have long stalks.

Tall annual willowherb: Capsules are 3/5 to 1-2/5 inches (1.5–3.5 cm) long, hairless or have glandular hairs, and have long stalks.

Seeds

Seeds are egg shaped, flattened, and end in a tuft of long, soft hairs.

Reproduction

Reproduces by seed.

More information

  • Broadleaf ID illustration
  • Fringed willowherb, Epilobium ciliatum ssp. ciliatum Calflora’s distribution map
  • Tall annual willowherb Calflora’s distribution map
  • For agriculture: UC IPM Pest Management Guidelines

Epilobium ciliatum
Family: Onagraceae

Growth Habit: Willow herb grows up to 80cm. It is a branched weed that is almost hairless. It has broad leaves and short leaf stems.

Type of Plant: A perennial erect herb.

Flowers: Deep rose-purple coloured flowers are present.

Fruit/Seed: Seed pods are long and cylindrical.

Dispersal: Willow herb disperses by seed.

Distribution: Willow herb is a very common weed of orchards and roadsides and bare areas.

Status: Undeclared in Tasmania

Weed Impact:

  • Willow herb can have a significant impact in orchards.
  • Willow herb is resistant to glyphosate, therefore any area regularly sprayed with glyphosate for weed control may develop an abundance of willow herb.

For further information contact the Department of Primary Industry, Water and Environment, Tasmania.

Control Methods:

  • Mechanical. Cultivation and hand hoeing are effective. Mowing can help control the spread but needs to be done when the plant is not seeding. If seeded plants are mowed this will promote weed spread. Mulching greatly reduces seed germination.
  • Herbicides. Spot spray. Herbicides registered in Tasmania include dichlobenil and glyphosate.

N.B. Always check the herbicide label before use.

Hairy willow-herb identification and control

Hairy willow-herb is a Eurasian relative of our native fireweed that can invade and overwhelm moist areas and shorelines. It invades the same types of areas as purple loosestrife and can reduce wetland and shoreline habitat in much the same way. In King County, Washington, hairy willow-herb is only present in a few locations, so we are actively looking for it and working to eradicate it where we find it.

Legal status in King County, Washington

Hairy willow-herb is aClass B Noxious Weed in Washington State and control of this weed is required in King County according to Washington’s noxious weed law. Public and private landowners need to control this plant when it occurs on their land.

Although this plant was originally used as an ornamental, sometimes as an alternative to purple loosestrife, it is now illegal to buy or sell hairy willow-herb in Washington State. This species is on the Washington quarantine list (known as the prohibited plants list) and it is prohibited to transport, buy, sell, offer for sale, or to distribute plants or plant parts of this species, into or within the state of Washington. It is further prohibited to intentionally transplant wild plants and/or plant parts of this species within the state of Washington. All populations of hairy willow-herb should be removed and seeding should be prevented.

For more information see Noxious weed lists and laws.

Identification (see below for more photos)

  • Semi-aquatic perennial herb covered with soft hairs
  • Grows up to 6 feet tall
  • Stems are erect and branched
  • Showy pink-purple flowers with white centers and notched petals
  • Leaves are opposite, lance-shaped with toothed edges, and attach directly on the stem
  • Long, narrow seed pods that split open to release numerous seeds with long white hairs

Habitat and impact

Found in low pastures, ditches, wetlands, stream banks, fields and meadows. Often found growing in the same habitat as and can co-exist with purple loosestrife. Hairy willow-herb can out-grow purple loosestrife in the fall, although the reverse is true in the spring. Prefers sunny, open spaces but is somewhat shade-tolerant once established.

Aggressive growth crowds out native wetland plants. Dense stands can impede water flow in waterways and wetlands. Can spread to undisturbed areas and invade into existing vegetation.

Growth and reproduction

Hairy willow-herb reproduces by wind dispersed seeds as well as vegetatively by thick rhizomes (underground stems). Flowers July through August. Tends to grow rapidly and spread most in early autumn. Tolerant of flooded soils. Rhizomes can grow submerged in water or water-saturated soils, but can also spread into meadows and other upland areas.

Control

Most control methods will need to be repeated over several years to be successful. Due to the highly invasive nature of hairy willow-herb, off-site composting is not recommended. Either destroy plants on-site or carefully dispose of with regular garbage.

Make sure to have a long-term plan to ensure success, protect native and beneficial species while doing the control, and start in the least infested areas first and then move into the more heavily infested areas.

Small infestations can be dug up. Make sure to remove all of the roots and rhizomes to prevent plants from re-sprouting. Bag and dispose of all plant material or destroy on-site. Do not take off-site unless material is contained and discarded with the garbage. Seeds spread easily on the wind so if plants are in seed, place bag over plant carefully and cut off the stems before removing the roots.

For larger infestations, chemical control may be more cost-effective than manual removal. However, in wet areas, only state-approved aquatic herbicides can be used and state and local permits will probably be needed. For more information or a site-specific recommendation in King County, Washington, contact the noxious weed program. For information in other locations, contact your local weed board or water quality permitting agency.

Additional information on hairy willow-herb

  • Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board (external link)
  • King County’s Hairy Willowherb Weed Alert (download Acrobat file)
  • Whatcom County Noxious Weed Control Board’s Hairy Willow-herb Fact Sheet (external link)
  • University of Washington Burke Museum Herbarium Image Collection – Epilobium hirsutum (external link)
  • Google Images for Epilobium hirsutum (external link)
  • CalPhotos for Epilobium hirsutum (external link)

What to do if you find this plant in King County, Washington

Please notify us if you see hairy willow-herb growing in King County. Our program staff can provide the property owner or appropriate public agency with site-specific advice on how best to remove it. Also, because hairy willow-herb is not established in King County, we have an opportunity to stop it from spreading if we act quickly. We map all known locations of regulated noxious weeds such as hairy willow-herb in order to help us and others locate new infestations in time to control them.

Epilobium hirsutum – Great Willowherb

Phylum: Magnoliophyta – Class: Equisetopsida – Order: Myrtales – Family: Onagraceae

Great Willowherb is sometimes referred to as the Great Hairy Willowherb. Although very tall, this Epilobium species tends to be less conspicuous than its close relative Rosebay Willowherb.

Description

This robust hairy-stemmed perennial grows to a height of 2m. The stemless elongated oval leaves have toothed margins and they are arranged in opposing pairs along the stems. Flowers of Great Willowherb are pinkish purple with paler centres and typically 2 to 3cm across. There are fine dark branching veins on their four petals, each petal having a single shallow notch.

Behind the petals are four narrow greenish sepals typically 5mm long. The white stigma has four lobes. In late summer the long narrow seed pods curl open and release hairy white parachutes to which the tiny seeds are attached.

Distribution

In Britain this wildflower is most abundant in England, becoming less frequent in northern Scotland. Although still a common sight, Great Willowherb is less abundant in Wales than is its close relative the Rosebay Willowherb. On mainland Europe Great Willowherb is found as far north as Sweden and south into North Africa. To the east its range extends into parts of Asia. Elsewhere, including North America, this is an introduced species.

Habitat

Often seen in large colonies along riverbanks and canal towpaths, this plant tends to favour chalky soil although it copes with neutral or slightly acidic substrates..

Above: Great Willowherb, in flower and with seed pods, in a riverside setting

The plants shown on this page were photographed in South Wales.

We hope that you have found this information helpful. If so we are sure you would find our books Wonderful Wildflowers of Wales, vols 1 to 4, by Sue Parker and Pat O’Reilly very useful too. Buy copies here…

Other nature books from First Nature…

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