7th May 2013
There are about 10 species of willowherb that grow in the UK and most of them can be used to provide salad leaves or greens when they are young. The one that people are most familiar with is Rosebay Willowherb Chamaenerion angustifolium which, at the end of summer, lines roadside verges with its show of bright pink flowers.
It has relatively recently been placed in a separate genus from the other members of the family which are Epilobium, they all possess notched petals which Rosebay lacks. It was a rare plant in the UK in the 19th century being traditionally found in upland areas, but it has spread and increased in the last hundred or so years and is now very common almost everywhere; on roadsides, railway embankments, waste ground and particularly burnt ground. The seeds are supposed to need high temperatures to germinate and hence its other names of Fireweed and Bomb-site Plant. In Scotland, it colonised the old Singer sewing machine factory on Clydebank and was named locally Singerweed.
The plant grows to about 1.2 metres high with long, narrow leaves (which resemble willow leaves) arranged spirally up the stem. However it is the young shoots which are just coming out now which are generally used, cooked like asparagus or blanched then fried in butter.
However, other parts of the plant can also be used. The roots dug up at this time of year can be cooked and eaten and the leaves can be used as a salad leaf or a green vegetable. In British Columbia, Native American tribes used the pith in the stems as a thickening agent in stews and soups or sometimes as a flour for making bread. It is not everyone’s favourite however. Roger Phillips in his book Wild Food claims he has been unable to make it palatable saying that it is “far too bitter to enjoy”.
The plant. like other Willowherbs has several medicinal qualities. It is an astringent and an infusion can be used to improve digestion, treat diarrhoea, mouth ulcers, sore throats and irritable bowel syndrome. In addition there does seem to be evidence of it being effective against benign prostate enlargement and possibly even prostate cancer. It can also be used as a poultice for ulcers and minor wounds.
One use that is worth trying and one that surprised me the first time I tried it was to make a tea from it. Harvest the young leaves that are out now, spread them on some paper and dry in a shady place, turning every now and then until crisp. To make the tea simply infuse 4-5 leaves in freshly boiled water for about 5 minutes. It is widely drunk in eastern Europe, especially Russia where it is called Kaporie tea. Some reports say not to use too older leaves as they may have a soporific effect!