Rosebay Willowherb: Taking The Pith

by Paul Kirtley

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Rosebay willowherb stand

A stand of Rosebay willowherb, Chamerion angustifolium. County Durham, July. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Rosebay willowherb, Chamerion angustifolium (also known as Epilobium angustifolium) is a widespread plant of the Northern Hemisphere.

Known as Fireweed to many, particularly in North America, this name reflects the plant’s appearance following forest fires and other events which leave the earth scorched. With greater light on the earth again, C. angustifolium seeds then germinate and grow in the cleared areas until competition crowds them out.

This tendency to appear from scorched earth also gave rise to the name Bombweed in the UK during the Second World War, when the plant quickly populated derelict bomb sites.

Rosebay Willowherb – Habit and Habitat

The plant is an upright perennial, with an unbranched stem growing to around 1.5 metres (4.5 feet), sometimes taller, with pink or purple four-petalled flowers. The leaves are alternate and resemble those of some Willows, Salix sp.

Flowering stem of Rosebay Willowherb

Rosebay willowherb flowers, County Durham, July. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Leaves of Rosebay Willowherb looking very much like Willow, Salix sp.

Rosebay willowherb leaves resemble those of willow species, hence the name. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Rosebay willowherb flowers from June to September. Long seed pods form containing masses of hairy/fluffy seeds which are carried on the wind. There can be around 80,000 seeds per plant.

Rosebay likes to grow in dry, relatively open areas. You typically find it in forest clearings, beside tracks and trails, on well-drained banks of rivers and on recently disturbed ground.

Rosebay willowherb has become more common and widespread in areas disturbed by man. In the UK it was at one time considered rare but during the last 100-150 years rosebay has spread dramatically, thought to be due initially to its spread along corridors of suitable habitat created by new railways in the 19th Century.

Rosebay Willowherb – A Plant of Many Uses

The uses of this plant are multiple – from natural cordage to fire-lighting to clothing to edible roots, shoots, leaves and flowers as well as numerous medicinal applications, some of which are still being investigated.

Many of these uses were well-known to native peoples from Alaska to Siberia.

One use which was familiar to North American First Nations as well as to Kamchatkan reindeer herders, was consuming the pith from inside the stems – raw, cooked or fermented.

Taking the pith from fireweed is something which is easy to do. Very little processing is required to ready it for consumption. It’s also pretty tasty.

Accessing Rosebay Willowherb Pith

You need to locate a stand of rosebay willowherb which is mature and – typically – starting to flower but not gone to seed.

The plant flowers over an extended period and it is quite possible for flowers lower down the stem to have finished while flowers in the middle-top are in full bloom with buds above them towards the top of the flowering spike. Once the plant has gone completely to seed the stem is often woody and dry, with the pith becoming less attractive and more difficult to access.

Cut the stem low down. You’ll see the pith in the centre of the stem.

Pithy centre of Rosebay Willowherb stem

The woody stem of mature Rosebay willowherb has a pithy core. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Now you need to split the stem.

You can use your thumbnails to do this, starting at the base of the stem and working as far as you can towards the top. Or you can use a knife. It’s easier to split the stem with a small blade such as a pocket knife.

You should take care not to cut yourself, however, as again the split is best started at the base of the stem, where you’ll have to hold the stem very close to where you are creating the split. It’s safer to place the stem down onto a log and start the split with the tip of your knife.

Splitting stem of Rosebay Willowherb

Use your thumbnails or – carefully – use a knife to split the stem. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Whichever way you start the split, continue it up the stem as far as you can manage. Now use your fingers to open out the stem. It will probably break into two halves.

In the centre is the pith. This can be scraped out of the half-stems with the tip of your knife. Better still for this job is a small stick with the end shaped like a screw-driver but only as wide as the pith. This will scrape out the pith very efficiently – more efficiently than the tip of your knife – so it is worth producing this little tool if you want anything more than a wayside nibble.

Scraping out the pith of Rosebay Willowherb

Scrape out the pith using the tip of a knife or a small stick. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

The pith is somewhere between cucumber and unripe cantaloupe both in terms of texture and taste. It has some sweetness to it but sometimes also a slightly hot, peppery aftertaste. When collected up, the pith becomes more gelatinous and slimy and browns quite quickly.

Gelatinous pith of Rosebay Willowherb

The pith of Rosebay willowherb is somewhat gelatinous. Photo: Paul Kirtley.

Rosebay Willowherb Pith: Food Value

The collected pith can be added to soups and broths both to thicken them and add extra carbohydrate content. It can also add a little flavour to otherwise bland concoctions.

I can attest to having felt the value of even the raw pith of rosebay as a wayside pick-me-up. I have eaten it while undertaking exercises where we lived off the land; you certainly feel the benefit to your blood sugar levels not long after taking on a few mouthfuls of the fresh pith. It’s surprising.

Rosebay willowherb is one of the more useful wilderness plants and taking the pith is one of the simplest ways of obtaining food from it.

Let us know in the comments below if you’ve tried the pith of rosebay willowherb – raw, cooked or otherwise.

Recommended Field Guides and Plant Books

   

Related Articles on Paul Kirtley’s Blog:

Five Survival Plants Every Forager Should Know

The Difference Between Foraging and Living Off The Land

Survival Foraging: A Realistic Approach

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Paul Kirtley is an award-winning professional bushcraft instructor. He is passionate about nature and wilderness travel. In addition to writing this blog Paul owns and runs Frontier Bushcraft, a wilderness bushcraft school, offering bushcraft courses and wilderness expeditions.

 

{ 48 comments… read them below or add one }

David

The pith is great as a survival food but the young shoots in spring are absolutely delicious blanched. Up the in my top 5 foraged foods!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi David,

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you are also a fan!

Best,

Paul

Reply

fred

I like the growing tips dried as green tea. I’ve also used fresh, raw baby plants in sandwiches too. A friend (after tasting the pith) couldn’t get enough of it & was nibbling it all summer last year!

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Fred,

Thanks for your comment. It’s good to hear from you.

I was particularly interested in your use of the raw baby plants in sandwiches – something I’ve not tried and will have to put on my list for next Spring.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

James Harris

I’ve not tried this before, and only heard of it as bombweed before. Definitely one I’m going to have to try, thanks Paul

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi James,

Yes, get out there. Now is the time around where you are…

Cheers,

Paul

Reply

Jake Pyett

Wow. I never knew you could eat the pith, Looking forward to trying it!

Thanks Paul 🙂

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Jake,

It’s good to hear from you. Let me know what you think once you’ve had a taste! 🙂

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Roland Taylor

A definite pick-me-up when your reserves are low and quite pleasant to snack on at other times.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Roland,

Yes, indeed it is! 🙂

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Rody Klop

Paul,

Nice to know. I always avoided this plant because I did not know if it was edible. Now I will have to try ofcourse 🙂

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hey Rody,

As always, it’s good to hear from you.

Let us know what you think once you have tried it! 🙂

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Steve Carothers

Paul,

As always thanks for the article. I am not familiar with this plant growing in Kentucky but will take notice and see if I can locate it here. The article is of much help of where to look for it.

Have a grand day,

Steve

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Steve,

It’s good to hear from you again.

It seems that from looking at the USDA website, this plant is either absent or very rare in Kentucky: http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=CHAN9

So, definitely let us (and others) know if you spot some!…

All the best,

Paul

Reply

WoodsmokeBob

Hi Paul,

One of my favourite plants – absolutely loads of things you can do with it and always one of the first plants i show to people i’m teaching bushcraft to.

The young plants are delicious steamed like asparagus and served with butter, Have cooked the leaves like spinach before and also eaten the pith and you’re right it does taste like cucumber!

The seed down is also my preferred coal extender for birds nests while doing bowdrill and i always have a large bag full in my shed for teaching purposes and when i feel the urge to knock out an ember!

All the best! Bob.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Bob,

It seems like you know this plant – and its value – very well.

It’s nice to connect with another rosebay/fireweed fan! 🙂

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Niels

Nice tip. I have a question: Can you do the same thing with great willowherb?

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Niels,

It’s good to hear from you.

I have eaten the pith of Great Willowhern, Epilobium hirsutum, and while there were no apparent ill-effects, I found it to be not as sweet and to have a somewhat unpleasant, bitter aftertaste.

Let me know if you try it in your area and if you find the same tastes.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Bill

Can or has anyone made a wine out of it? And what parts do you use
Cheers
Bill

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Bill,

Wine is definitely made from the blossoms: https://www.vinoshipper.com/wines/alaskan_wilderness_wines/wild_fireweed_2,927

Also referenced here: The Alaskan Bootleggers Bible

Andy Hamilton has also included rosebay willowherb in an interesting brew.

I hope this helps.

Let us know if you make some and how it turns out!

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Mikael Holopainen

Hi Paul,

Great tip. The root is a staple food in Swedish survival.

Thanks,

Mikael

By the way, did you receive the document on Nutritional Values?

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Mikael,

Good to hear from you again.

I do have an A4 sheet containing some nutritional values that I was given some years ago but I’m not sure of the source.

Is this what you are referring to or have you sent me something?

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Mikael

Hi Paul,

That’s unfamiliar to me. What I sent you is a draft translation of Nutritional values from a Swedish book, “Överleva på Naturens Vilkor.” I tried to send it to you through the admin email on the first of August, a couple of weeks ago. I take it didn’t arrive then. You have my email if you would like it for personal use. Some of the names in English may be incorrect. If you would correct me then that would be much appreciated. There are some other translation work that I would like to do as well.

I’m trying to wangle some time and money to make it for an elementary course next year. It would be great to touch base and for me to learn skills directly related to the UK environment.

Regards,

Mikael

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Mikael,

Your email has been located! 🙂

I’ll have a look at the translation and then reply.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Leena

Hi Paul

Found this plant interesting…so looked up its ancestry wrt to first nations..

* it’s the symbol of the Yukon province …
* it’s symbol of balance… A lesson to learn from nature….especially after a fire.
* it’s flowers provide honey…sweet flavour…
* alongside its other uses ….flowers can be used to make syrup…used with ice cream. 🙂
Read more about Yukon /first nations/ fireweed at http://lawrenceparkgardencare.com/2006/12/06/fireweed/

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Leena,

Yes, rosebay has a lot of uses and has been an important source of resources for various indigenous peoples. It’s always interesting to research them.

Thanks for posting the link.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Leena

True Paul…researching is easy to do….your practical tips are valuable…the how to take the pith…is most handy…nicely demonstrated.

In fact it was the passage – ”I can attest to having felt the value of even the raw pith of rosebay as a wayside pick-me-up. I have eaten it while undertaking exercises where we lived off the land; you certainly feel the benefit to your blood sugar levels not long after taking on a few mouthfuls of the fresh pith. It’s surprising.”-

That made me think what might be the carbohydrate form…ie is it fructose etc…couldnt find the nutritional content or sugar form…but as all the posts indicate… it is sweet. I suppose thats all one needs to know really. Rest are all add ons to your article.

First nations as you so rightly put it in this and many articles before…have already mastered the art of observation and using resources well. Thanks again for a good article.

Reply

Duncan

Hi Paul,
Another great article.
I too use the seed down as a coal extender. I wasn’t aware there were so many other uses though.
Could you let me know where I can find out more about these other uses (without the obvious plug for one of your excellent courses! 🙂
Thanks
Duncan

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Duncan,

Thanks for your comment on the article. Rosebay is a very useful plant.

I can’t recommend a single resource which tells you about all the uses but I will be writing more on this when I get the opportunity.

If you are interested on some of the indigenous uses, there is some information available online if you do a Google search. For example Leena has posted such a link elsewhere in this comment thread.

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Mark H

Hi Paul,

Thank you once again for filling in more gaps in my plantlore knowledge.

The posts have also answered further questions- I have lots of Great Willowherb in my locality…

Nice to see the ‘ international commentary’. Mors Kochanski always spoke (and still does I am sure!) about the joys of ‘Fireweed’.

Thank you once again,
Best
Mark

Reply

Matt

I never tried the pith of rosebay willowherb, but I will certainly will with the first ocassion.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Matt,

Give it a go. And pop back to let us know what you thing.

All the best,

Paul

Reply

neil bennett

another great article paul. it is abundant by me and will be trying the pith very soon. might also have a go at making cordage, i asume its a simillar process to nettle cordage?. without the sting! .thanks mate. 😉 its great reading other peoples comments and uses too.

Reply

Patrick

Hey Paul,
Wow, great post, and I definitely learned some stuff here.

I’ve seen fireweed for so many years, and knew that it was edible, but I’ve never seen such a comprehensive explanation. Thanks again,

pat

Reply

RON LOWATCHIE

Hello Paul ,I feel like I got to the feast last, after everyone already ate , a little embarrassed I never learned about fireweed before .It is a little strange I checked in tonight ,only to find something this interesting ,when I HAD BEEN WONDERING ABOUT THIS PLANT FOR QUITE A WHILE . just a big thanks again ,great photos and all , will go have a better look and taste .thanks RON L.

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi Ron,

Thanks for your comment. I’m so glad you found this article useful and stimulating. Let me know what you think of fireweed once you’ve tried it.

Best,

Paul

Reply

Ange

Hey,

I loved reading this, and will go further into the links you have posted later. Fire weed grows like crazy where I live, I thought it’s so pretty how come it’s disregarded as a weed. I was curious and researched it’s value and was pleased to discover it’s edible, rich in vit c and how it grows where destruction has taken place. It’s a wonderful plant. I would like to utilise it accross the globe, where forrests have been felled, by using bees to produce fireweed honey, and then of course there is the beeswax, then I ‘d like the plant to be used to make broth or other staple food. I figured there are so many starving people in the world, so many crops struggling to grow, and being sprayed with poisons. This fellow grows with no help, and in the worst condtions. Yet it’s just ignored, ( well not by you wonderful people! ) I hope I can bring somekind of food program in to help starving people and utilise this gorgeous weed! I am a dreamer. Thanks so much ;D.

Reply

John Ireton

Thank-you all for the many uses of Fireweed what an eye opener. I have used the wet plant for many small drinks of water by placing my mouth at the base of the plant and sucking as I went up the plant. We had run out of water while Dall Sheep hunting in Alaska, this plant after many other plants tries gave one the best small drink of water. We were on a steep mountain side moving back down to our canoe. These were small Fireweed plants, maybe one foot or 30cm tall. This plant provided many quick handy drinks. Thank for reminder of the past. John Ireton

Reply

ballisticknife

good article shared on facebook

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Thank you. Much appreciated.

Reply

Christian

It’s late February and I’ve been nibbling the young shoots of this plant – quite invigorating!

Reply

jack

I used a glass of water to wash the gelatinous pith into directly off the flat ended stick. Then each time I would dry the stick before scraping out more pith:
http://www.projectnoah.org/spottings/430206023

Reply

Adrian

Remember folks use the resources nature provides with care. Mother nature won’t thank you if you take the pith too much.

Reply

Catherine Maslova

Found your article just as I was reading an article in Russian on making thread from the pith ( quite difficult, by the sound of it, but good for headaches and rheumatism, apparently). Your article and especially the photos definitely made some obscure bits less obscure. The Russians call the plant ” Ivan’s tea”, incidentally, but they make the tea from the leaves.

Reply

David

Hello,

Please let me know where I can buy seeds of Chamerion angustifolium (Willow-herb) or in the US they call it Fireweed or rosebay willoherb.

Also I am looking for the dried leaves as a tea of this herb to use it in treatment of prostate problems.

I will be really thankful to you and for your help.

David
Montreal-QC-Canada

Reply

Paul Kirtley

Hi David, never having needed to buy the seeds, I don’t know the answer to your question. I’m sure a quick Google search would yield a supplier if one exists.

That said, as far as I understand it Chamerion angustifolium occurs in all Canadian provinces. Can you not just find and harvest some plants locally?

Warm regards,

Paul

Reply

Ari Grönlund

We have made trad beverage from the flowers of Chamaenerion angustifolium.

1 liter of flowers (no bitter greens)
1 lime juice and some scraped skin
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 litres boiling water
ca. 2dl honey + 4dl sugar (do not put all sweeteners at once, check taste)

Pour hot water on flowers, add lime juice and scrapings together with lemon juice.
Let cool for 2-3 hours
Drain through sieve
Add sugar and honey according to taste.

Makes a nice pink summer cool drink.

Reply

Vincent

Dear Paul,

Thank you for sharing these little gems.
I have been walking amongst Rosebay willow herbs all summer and now I feel this information will endow me with a better appreciation of this common roadside plant

Reply

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