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Bee Plant of the Month: Rosebay Willowherb : 37 BEE PLANT OF THE MONTH Willowherb Rosebay Bridget Beattie, PhD, NDB

bees as it grows in profusion at a time when the main honey flow is dwindling, so provides a valuable source of nectar and pollen. Several species of bumblebee also love to dine on it.


This handsome plant is usually dismissed as a weed but I think it deserves to be cultivated for its wonderful architectural bearing and because it is such an important plant for wildlife. It is a tall herbaceous perennial, often found in waste places and along railway embankments, where it can form great swathes of colour from July to early October.

Rosebay Willowherb is in the same family as Evening Primrose and other willowherbs which are members of the Epilobium

Fact fi le:

Rose Bay Willowherb: Chaemerion angustifolium (used to be Epilobium angustifolium) Family:

Onograceae August 2013 Vol 95 No 8

osebay Willowherb is an important plant for honey

genus. It is native to a very large area of the globe’s temperate regions in the northern hemisphere. It is commonly known as Ranting Widow, Bombweed and Fireweed and prolifi cally colonises demolition sites and areas which have been burnt, such as where forests have been cleared.

Characteristics The spikes may grow to two

metres in height and carry magenta fl owers of 2–3 cm in an elongated pyramid of colour, with lance-shaped willowy leaves alternating spirally up the smooth reddish stems. Veins on the leaves are rather curious as they circle back along the edges. The plant’s strategy for avoiding self-pollination is to have its stamens, carrying the pollen, ripe before the female stigma and this is called protandry. Pollen collected from one plant must thus be accepted by a different plant. Transfer of pollen from the younger fl owers at the top of the fl ower spike to older fl owers with ripe stigmas lower down is reduced by the plant secreting more nectar from fl owers at the ‘female’ stage. Bees quickly learn to visit the bottom of the spike fi rst and then gradually work their way up it. The honey has a slight greenish

tint with a delicate aroma with no distinct fl avour and when crystallised is very pale and fi ne- grained. The pollen is a beautiful blue–green. Rosebay Willowherb thrives in open spaces with plenty of light, sending out a laterally spreading main root by which it proliferates. The tall fl ower stems grow from a basal rosette of leaves. It grows in slightly acidic, neutral and slightly alkaline moist soil and can be tolerated in that neglected part of the garden where it will give a wonderful show.

Cultivation Cultivating this plant in the

garden comes with a warning! It spreads rapidly and becomes invasive, particularly as each of the reddish-brown seed capsules contain hundreds of tiny, wind- dispersed seeds, so choose the site with care! However, there are some very pretty cultivars available from plant nurseries, such as the white-fl owered alba. Grow in humus-rich, moist, but well-drained soil. Plants may be divided in spring and autumn and softwood cuttings taken from side shoots in spring. The species part of its name, angustifolium, means ‘narrow’ in Latin and of course folium means ‘leaf’.

All parts of the plant except its

seeds are edible and have been used in many cultures both medicinally and for food. Young shoots can be mixed with other greens; jellies, syrup and ice-cream recipes can still be found. In Russia, the leaves are fermented to make a tea. It is used in herbal medicines to treat burns, boils, diarrhoea and intestinal irritation and is said to make a good mouthwash. Care is needed with older leaves as they are said to be soporifi c – so perhaps it wasn’t Mr McGregor’s lettuces which sent Peter Rabbit to sleep. ¤


began beekeeping with Kenya top-bar hives while working in Montserrat in 1979. She was awarded the National Diploma in Beekeeping in 2008. A chemist and computer scientist by

profession, she is passionate about the natural world. She keeps chickens, sheep and geese as well as bees.

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