Nature Notes by Ian Brand
Full article available HERE
August should be one of my favourite months, it is after all my birthday. However, I find myself in a reflective mood. Perhaps I am remembering being the youngest in my class at school, and the far too early appearance in the shop windows of ‘back to school uniforms’. A plant that reflects my present melancholia is Rosebay Willowherb (Chamaenerion angustifolium). Not when it is covered in stunning bright pink flowers, but as it turns to fruit, producing thousands of seeds which are carried on the wind, signalling that summer is almost over.
Many people regard it as a weed, but it was once a cultivated and cherished garden plant. The Willowherb family (Onagraceae) has after all a few ‘stunners’, including both Fuchsia and Evening Primrose, and like Rosebay, flower in the second half of summer.
It is hard to believe that this now ubiquitous plant, was in the early 19th century rare, being confined to rocky ledges and screes of upland Britain. The construction of the railways precipitating its spread and population explosion. The embankments providing a similar environment to the rocky fells and also the means of distribution. Go to any railway station and take a look, where it is joined by the other members of the ‘railway gang’, Red Valerian, Oxford Ragwort and Buddleia.
Further expansion occurred during the 1st World War, when large tracts of woodland were felled to provide timber for the war effort. Forest fires also provide sites for this early coloniser and pioneer plant, turning the nutrient-rich ash into a blaze of pink flowers, giving the plant it’s common North American name of Fireweed.
During the London blitz in the 2nd World War, bombsites were quickly colonised in a similar fashion to that following forest fires. Londoners giving it the name Bombweed and choosing it as their county flower, symbolising regeneration.
It is not surprising how quickly it colonises areas of artificial disturbance, each plant producing 80,000 seeds. The long seed pods zipping open from the top like a banana in a 4-way split to reveal the feathered seeds.
Not only a pretty pink face, it provides nectar for a large number of insect species, with the honey having a spicy flavour, as well as being the main larval food for the beautiful Elephant Hawk-moth.
The Londoners bombed during the second world war were right, it is a beautiful flower, covering the scars of conflict.