Sunday, 26 August 2012

Snippets of Interesting Things: Rosebay Willowherb

The Luggage was made from the wood of the sapient peartree, a plant so magical it had nearly died out on the Disc, and survived in only one or two places; it was a sort of rosebay willowherb, only instead of bombsites it sprouted in areas that had seen vast expenditures of magic.
(Terry Pratchett, Sourcery, Corgi, 1988, p.63.)

The other day, Fluffhead and I were out in the sunshine.  Coming home from town.  I pushed the pushchair, and watched the world in front of me.

A woman ahead that I vaguely recognised as living in the same street suddenly stopped by the outside wall near her house.  She took a tall happy looking plant growing there, ripped it out quite violently, and threw it down on the path beside her.  Without looking back, without breaking stride.  And disappeared off into her house, up some red steps. 

She didn’t look like a cruel person, but I found this a heartrending thing to do.

I was going the same way, and wheeled the pushchair over to the plant, great clods of earth attached still to its thickish roots.   It had soft green leaves, thin and wavy, and a high tall top, with gushes of small pink flowers, falling over themselves to bloom out, like a fountain at its apex.  Droplets of flower.  I thought it was beautiful.

I picked it up and took it home.  When I got inside, before even taking Fluffhead out of the pushchair, and telling him I wouldn’t be long, I fetched a pot from the outhouse, and some compost, and spoke softly to the poor traumatised plant, and re-potted it, with some food and water.  And put it outside in the yard, next to 2 other tallish plants, so that it would feel among its like, its peers.

It drooped for several days, then seemed to rally.  Its bottom leaves browned a bit, but the top ones stood out again.  The flowers all died, they never recovered.  Strange fluffy curly things started to sprout from its mid section.  Like shaved wooden slivers covered in a dust of cotton wool.   At this point I thought – I need to look this odd plant up somewhere…it’s behaving a bit like a science fiction plant.  Any minute the house will be covered in fluff and we’ll be trapped inside!  It will take over the Earth, with its little pink flowers lulling us in, before going all fluffy and seeding everywhere, no more life as we know it – Planet of FLUFFPLANT!  (As you can see, I’m still deeply enmeshed in reading my Doctor Who books, and therefore full of fanciful leaps of not-quite-logic.)

The tall ailing plant turned out to divide opinion neatly.  It was either a dreadful weed – which clearly was what the woman down the street thought, in her ruthlessness when she saw it – not even IN her property, just near it, goodness me…Or it’s a fine herb, used for hundreds of years medicinally and mentioned in many botanicals. 

Rosebay Willowherb.  Also known as Fireweed[1], Blooming Sally, Great Willow Herb (as opposed to Small Willow Herb – which has less flowers and was used by herbalists for centuries to ease allsorts of prostate problems and bladder infections, by means of a simply made medicinal tea; repopularised by the Austrian Herbalist, Maria Trebens[2]).  Also known as Ranting Widow, Apple Pie, Singerherb…

Louise Bustard, Assistant Curator Glasgow Botanical Gardens, tells this story of first seeing Rosebay Willowherb when she arrived in Glasgow from London to take up her position at the Botanical Gardens:
…they took me back to a time when, as a little girl, I sat listening to my grandmother as she told me of the first summer after World War Two had ended. It was nothing short of a miracle that, after the blitz, St Paul's Cathedral remained standing proud and virtually untouched surrounded by - nothing.  Every home, shop, church and garden had been bombed to oblivion. St Paul's stood alone. As the summer got under way, however, the surrounding bombsites turned dusky pink as newly arrived and long hidden seeds of the rosebay willow-herb gradually covered the open wounds of the city. Through my grandmother's descriptive powers I
can still visualise in my mind an extraordinary sight that my eyes never saw[3].

A flower of hope, spread out in otherwise desolate spaces, speaking of regeneration, the possibility of fruitfulness again.  She describes how attitudes to it have changed:
It is generally considered a native, but the rosebay willow herb only really arrived in Britain at the end of the last ice age. However, from that time to the present century it was considered a rarity. Today if it appears in our well kept borders it is immediately ripped out as an unwanted weed. It was perceived very differently in the seventeenth century when the famous herbalist Gerard was writing about plants.
Its scarcity then meant it was much more appreciated. Gerard
describes it as “A goodly and stately plant, . . . .garnished with brave flowers of great beautie”.[4]

Far from being a nasty weed overpopulating areas, I thought it was gorgeous.  After reading that, I went and replanted it again – in the earth properly, along the edge of a completely fallow flowerbed.  Fluffhead has been running up and down it all summer – everything I planted died, except some tiny wildflowers I have yet to identify, and a really amazing ‘weed’ that looks like coriander but isn’t, and grows in a sort of overground root system, with runners, like a strawberry plant would.  I wondered whether it would survive, and fluff those little seeds over the flowerbed and to the barren areas of garden, surviving extremes of rain and draught, the way nothing else in my garden has properly this summer (except the buddleia; that I dislike for its incredibly bionic growth.  It needs to be out in the street, I feel bad that I have to cut it back so strongly…)

I thought this could be a new experiment.  The year before last, I let the borage go insane to see what would happen.  What happened was that I had  borders filled with absolutely nothing BUT borage, it crowded out everything, a very greedy plant.  But the way I have been observing the Rosebay Willowherb – and I have since seen it along all the local railway embankments, and some of the more desolate front gardens of the area: it grows alongside other things, it doesn’t leave absolutely no room for anything else.  Besides which, last year we had useful Borage; maybe next year we can have useful Rosebay Willowherb…

(In case you didn’t know, Borage is where we get Starflower Oil, so useful for women’s hormone balancing, and taken in capsule form to help even out periods, breast inflammation and cramping.  This is due to its extremely high levels of GLA, a fatty-acid, the highest of any naturally occurring plant source[5].  It has many many other uses and is worth looking up, but that’s what I use it for.)

Rosebay Willowherb has its own uses.  In her brilliantly useful 2008 book, Hedgerow Medicine, Julie Bruton-Seal also says: ‘It has not been used much in medicine in recent years but was a favourite of the American Eclectic physicians in treating diarrhoea and typhoid. Its soothing, astringent and tonic action is wonderful for all sorts of intestinal irritation, and it makes a good mouthwash’ (see the shortened reference version, online: At this site, you'll find ways in which it can be eaten, too.

Interestingly, too, this health scare I have been having, that thankfully so far has not turned out to be cancer or anything terminal, is all about intestinal irritation…and last year, when the borage was everywhere, due to my experiment then, balancing hormones was my problem. Things have a habit of presenting themselves to my perception when I’m primed to find them most useful.  It’s a strange thing.  What a useful little thing I found.  And so beautiful.

[1] Because it likes to spring up to cover sites razed to the ground by fire. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) in his Diary of Samuel Pepys, nine volumes, 1660-1669, related how the burned area soon filled with fireweed (see May 1667).
[3] From Chickweed, Willow and Other Wild Glaswegians, by Louise Bustard, introductory notes, to be found at:
Do go ahead and read this brilliant, accessible study.  Lots of excellent interesting information.
[4] Ibid, p.61.
[5] James Wong is an ethno-botanist writing of herbal remedies safe for home use, in Grow Your Own Drugs, companion volume to the BBC series of 2009, p.159 (London: Collins, 2009).
Credit: The photo used at the top, is from this site:

1 comment:

  1. Hi there - I know this is from August last year but I've just found it. What a great blog! I'm at if you get a second to visit. You say you're over-interested and under-timed - I know the feeling, so I won't hold my breath. Be glad to see you there if you ever find the space.