Botanical: Epilobium hirsutum (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Onagrariaceae
The Willow-herb genus Epilobium is from two Greek words epi (upon) and lobos (a pod). The Willow-herb flowers stand upon the top of long, thin, pod-like seed-vessels, having somewhat the appearance of rather thick flower-stems.
In fact there’s an old English name ‘Son-before-the-Father’ for the Giant Willow-herb which reflects the fact that: ‘the long huskes in which the seede is contained doe come forth and waxe great before that the flouere openeth.’
The name Willow-herb refers to the willow-like form of the leaves.
There are nine Willow-herb species native to Great Britain, they belong to the order Onagraceae, Fuchsia, Evening Primrose and Enchanter’s Nightshade also belong to the same family.
Great Willow-herb is a large herb that flourishes in damp ground, such as wet grasslands, ditches, canal and riversides and woodland clearings. It is a striking plant, growing in great masses along the margins of canals.
It is tall and erect, branched, with underground creeping shoots, like the Rose Bay Willow-herb. The leaves, placed opposite one another on the stem, are 3 to 5 inches long, leaves and stem are woolly, hence the Latin name hirsutum, and the common English name ‘Hairy’ Willow-herb.
The flowers are numerous and large, purple-pink, bell-shaped and partly drooping, the petals broad and notched.
The leaves, and particularly the topshoots, when slightly bruised, have a delicate, cool fragrance, resembling scalded codlings (codlings are small elongated green cooking apples, in the past these would have been boiled or scolded in milk to create a pudding), hence Giant Willow-herbs popular name of Codlings and Cream (or Apples in Milk), but this fragrance is very soon lost after the plant is gathered. It is also called, in allusion to this delicate apple-ish scent, Apple Pie, Cherry Pie, Gooseberry Pie, Sod Apple and Plum Pudding.
The leaves are edible and are used in Russia to make a tisane, or tea, although many herbalists warn that used in large numbers the leaves are toxic and can cause epileptic-like convulsions, so perhaps one its best to avoid. That is despite the English botanist, herbalist, physician, and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper (18 October 1616 – 10 January 1654)
For other herbs and flowers in this series please click HERE.