Rosebay willowherb

Posted: Thursday 6 June 2013
by Kate Bradbury

My mum is on what she calls ‘The 20-Weeds-a-Day Plan’. This involves walking around the garden every afternoon and pulling up 20 weeds...

Rosebay willowherb. Photo by Paul Lane (

My mum is on what she calls ‘The 20-Weeds-a-Day Plan’. This involves walking around the garden every afternoon and pulling up 20 weeds, before sitting down and drinking a cup of tea, and admiring her weed-free view.

The idea behind the plan is that no weeds can grow taller than a few centimetres, her garden plants won’t have to compete with them for water and nutrients, and there will be fewer weed seeds dispersed around the garden. Everything, she hopes, will look beautiful.

But one of the most common weeds in her garden is rosebay willowherb. I love this plant, and can’t help but think that by hoicking out every last seedling, my mum is denying her garden a little piece of its history.

A native wildflower, rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) grows to a height of around 1.5m. Its leaves grow around the stem like a staircase, and tall spires of pink flowers emerge in summer, attracting a range of insects. It’s also the main food plant of the majestic elephant hawk-moth, whose huge, elephant-like caterpillars are found crawling along the ground in September.

Rosebay willowherb is known as a pioneer species, as it’s often one of the first plants to colonise barren land. It was commonly seen growing on bomb sites during the Second World War, and is now found on waste ground and railway embankments, and, of course, in gardens.

My mum’s house was built on farmland in the 1930s. I often wonder how the area would have looked all those years ago, and sometimes imagine the ancestors of my mum’s bees, moths, frogs and newts living on the land as it was then. I picture vast swathes of rosebay willowherb colonising corners of land in fields recently ploughed by horses, and clouds of elephant hawk-moths descending to lay eggs on its foliage.

There are no clouds of elephant hawk-moths in my mum’s garden today – I’ve never seen an adult or a caterpillar in the 17 years she’s lived there. But there should be, and could be, if only she’d relax her campaign against the willowherb. What’s wrong with a bit of history in the garden?

Thank you to The Wildlife Trusts for supplying the rosebay willowherb photo, by Paul Lane

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Fonzie 09/06/2013 at 10:29

It's not known as Epilobium, but Chamerion.

oldchippy 09/06/2013 at 11:57

Chamerion is Willow herb or fireweed, Epilobium is Rosebay Willow herb.

Fonzie 09/06/2013 at 18:53

I stand corrected. Thank you oldchippy

AndytheScientist 14/06/2013 at 09:49

I have this in one part of my garden and have been trying all year to get rid of it. I agree that it's a very attractive plant, but it just spreads so much that it smothers anything. I'm all for wild flowers, infact i have a wild flower border but this is just too invasive to have near the garden, so i've been digging it up and planting bits of root well away from the house down the side of our field.

I'm hoping that one year of constant digging up the shoots that appear all over the area will kill it.. we shall see.

Juba 25/08/2017 at 19:33

Thank you for answering my question as to the type of catapillars that are feeding on my rosebay willowherb. They are chubby characters, about the length of my little finger, browny black in colour with 2 decorative eyes on their rears.

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