The willowherbs are some of the commonest plants in the UK and are found in a diverse range of habitat.  Here I review three common species and a relative with a misleading name. All willowherbs belong to the Order Myrtales and the family Onagrariaceae and most of them are placed in the genus Epilobium. The genus consists of about 160-200 species world wide. They are mostly herbacious that may be of a perennial or annual rootstock.

The Epilobium species are used as a food plant for many butterfly and moth caterpillars belonging to the family Lepidoptera, such as the Hebrew character moth, grey pug, the elephant hawk moth and the angle shade moth.

Perhaps the commonest willowherb in the north of England is the Rosebay willowherb so it is with this species that I start the review.  The rosebay willowherb has now been placed in the genus Chamerion by some botanists but was formerly in the genus Epilobium.

New foliage of the Rosebay willowherb



The rosebay willowherb was introduced to our shores by the Victorians who were charmed by their showy flower spikes. Like many other introduced plants it soon escaped over the wall to become established in the wider countryside. This is quite remarkable when one considers that less than 200 years ago these were rare plants of rock ledges and screes. The plant is now found tenanting woodland rides, along roads, scrub, wasteland, open country, around the margins of arable fields, derelict buildings and of course gardens where it may become a troublesome weed. It is one of the first plants to colonise ground that has been burned by fire and because of this  it earned the name of fire weed. In some parts of Europe it grows on the foothills of mountains where it has gained the lovely name of mountain joy.

The root of the rosebay willowherb is a thick rhizome that tends to creep. From this root it sends up tall flowering stems that can attain the height of over a metre. The long willow-shaped foliage grow alternately along the stem. The foliage gives rise to the species name of angustifolia meaning narrow leaved. The leaves are wavy edged . The stem is green and smooth often flushed with red at least near the base.

From June until September the plants produce showy spikes which are an elongated pyramidal shape. The individual flowers are of a light rose purple colour. There are four petals with the upper two being slightly broader than the lower two. 


New flower spike of the rosebay willowherb


Rosebay willowherb flowers.

 The sepals which are narrow and can be clearly seen between the petals are of a darker shade of purple. The individual flowers are about 1 inch {2cm} wide. the flowers attract many insects especially bees. When the flowers fade the elongated seed vessel stands erect. When they are mature these pods can be as long as 3 inches {8cm}. When the seeds are ripe the pods split open to release the silky plumed seeds. The plant produces thousands of seeds. These plumes are carried by the wind far and wide parachute fashion from the parent plant, indeed so many can take to the air at the same time that it can appear to be snowing in summer.

The foliage of the rosebay willowherb can be utilised to make a tea which is said to have a calming affect. 

Rosebay can make an impressive display where it becomes established. Below the elongated seed vessels.



The next plant under review the Greater willowherb also produces tall erect stems that form dense masses where it becomes established. It is a species of damp places  and as such is encountered along river banks, ditches and waste places. The stems mat attain the height of four feet or more {120 cm+}. Like the former species the under ground root system is of a creeping nature.

The greater willowherb

photo-- Dal

Description of the Greater willowherb continued---

The foliage on the stems of this species are short stalked, relatively broad and toothed with fine soft hairs hence the species name of hirsutum indicating hairs. The flowers are borne singly at the tip of the elongated pod from which the genus name derives. From the Greek epi,meaning upon +lobos indicating a pod.

The petals of the saucer shaped flower are purplish pink with white centers the petals are broad and slightly notched. from the flower colour derive coutry titles for the flower such as codlins and cream {codlins being the old name for apples} Many people state that the flowers and stem have the slight aroma of  scalded apples, personally I have never been able to detect this. 

This species should not be employed as an ingredient for home made herbal preparations for internal use for they could very well cause convulsions and other  unwanted side affects.

The broad leaved willowherb Epilobium montana


Epilobium montana

The next species of our three common willowherbs is the broad leaved willowherb, a species that tolerates shade and is often found as a garden weed. It is not as troublesome as the other two species in this respect for the roots are shallow, annual and easy to pull up. it is found in woodland, on old walls,waste ground and along the bottom of hedgerows.

Despite its name the foliage is not particularly broad, although they are broader than the previous two species. They are strongly veined and grow opposite to each other along the stem. they are of an oval shape.

The plant is also smaller in height than the former two only reaching 30-75 cm {one to one and a half feet}. the small petals {1cm}  wide are pink with notched petals which in common with the former two species are borne on elongated pods. These pods also split when the seeds are ripe to release their plumed seeds which are carried by the wind great distances from the parent plant.

The elongated pods beginning to split to release the plumed seeds.


Enchanter's nightshade

Finally a relative of the willowherbs that has a somewhat misleading name of Enchanter's nightshade Circaea lutetana which despite its name is not a nightshade but a member of the willowherb family Onagraceae.

This low growing plant 20-60 cm prefers shade and produces tiny white flowers 4-7 mm wide, which appear in loose spikes at the top of the flowering stem, they have rosy pink anthers which give the flower head a reddish tinge. They may be encountered from June until August.  

Enchanters nightshade prefers shady situations.


Enchanter's nightshade foliage.

The flowering stem is leaf-less. The leaves which are numerous at the base of the stem are elliptical with barely toothed margins. They grow opposite to each other and are noticeably veined. The plant may be encountered in the dark shady corners of woodland gardens and pathways.

There are nine species of willowherb that occur in the UK but the four reviewed are the ones most likely to be encountered during a stroll in to the countryside.  Other speciesd are much more scarce or specialised in habitat, for example the chickweed willowherb Epilobium alsinifolium is only found in certain regions of northern England such as the Lancaster region of Lancashire and five regions of Cumbria.  

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