We are family… Onagraceae

Rosebay Willow Herb flower – Chamerion angustifolium

There are many plants that we can utilize for bushcraft and wilderness living and by focusing on these plants first we can increase our useful palette of relevant plants. Uses are varied and range from fire lighting materials, water indicators, cordage resources to pot herbs to name just a few. The one thing they all have in common is that they have a Latin name that is unique in the same way finger prints are unique to us. This is really helpful when identifying plants especially edibles that can have confusion species. Often a little bit of understanding of Latin will help with the description of the growing habit of the plant, for example the native Beech tree – Fagus sylvatica, the sylvatica part of its names means of woodland. The other thing less well known is that all plants belong to a specific plant family. This can be really useful for identification as plants in the same families often share characteristics.

We are all at different stages in our plant learning journey and it is important to realise that it is not a competition but a learning experience. Many customers I see on courses are intimidated by plants as it seems like such a large topic. The key thing is to make a start and begin learning at a pace you are comfortable with and with a bushcraft focus in mind. It becomes really fun to learn and share knowledge of plants and is a constant talking point on walks with my young family.

I am going to take a look at the Onagraceae family or Willow herb family. This family contains the notable plant Rosebay Willow herb – Chamerion angustifolium. The second part of its name translated means narrow foliage and is descriptive of the leaves. This plant is also known by the common name “Fire Weed” due to its ability to colonise fire damaged ground. The weed description also alludes to its abilities as a very successful self-seeder and therefore colonizer. This suggests that the seeds can spread easily on the wind. These are all clues about the plant in just its name before any other details we know it is wide spread, common and a pioneer plant.

Rosebay Willow Herb – Chamerion angustifolium
Rosebay Willow Herb – Chamerion angustifolium.

The plant is a clump forming perennial that can reach in excess of 1.2 metres in height. It has simple, narrow leaves (angustifolium), arranged in a spiral and resembling willow leaves (willow herb). The young stems often have a pinky tinge to them. The flowers are bright pink with distinctive 4 petals on long racemes that finish at a point. This is common to other Onagraceae family members such as Oenothera biennis – Evening primrose.

Rosebay Willow Herb flower – Chamerion angustifolium
Rosebay Willow Herb flower – Chamerion angustifolium.

Rosebay willow herb stems can be eaten in early spring for a few weeks when the young stems are said to be reminiscent of young asparagus stems, but I have not experienced this for myself. The leaves are used in Russia as a black tea called “Kapoori”. The leaves can be harvested and dried out in spring and summer and added to hot water about 3-4 leaves per cup. It is said to make a good tea substitute and be good for the treatment of diarrhoea. The pith inside the stems can be eaten raw and tastes of cucumber I always think. It is also good as a thickening agent in woodland stews. From a bushcraft perspective it is also a very useful tinder material when collected in volume and stored dry. The plant produces masses of fluffy seed heads that can be used as an ember extender and although not as high value as greater reed mace seed heads it is still a valuable bushcraft resource for fire making. It should definitely be one to know.

On a recent woodland walk I came across a plant that I was familiar with by sight but did not know its name. On closer research through some identification guides I was able to identify it as Enchanters nightshade which confused me at first because it looked nothing like a member of the nightshade family. It turned out it was in fact a member of the Onagraceae family too. It is thought that its lineage gave rise to another plant in the same family Fushia that is a horticultural classic.

Enchanters nightshade - Circaea lutetiana
Enchanters nightshade – Circaea lutetiana.

Its Latin name is Circaea lutetiana and is named after the enchantress Circe from Greek mythology who is alleged to have used enchanters nightshade in her magic. It has been historically used in the treatment of wounds and as a flavoring in Austrian tea. I have also read that it was thought to be an aphrodisiac in the Scottish Highlands, but up to now I have no experience of this alleged quality, but maybe this ties in with the Greek mythology! If nothing else I have learnt another interesting plant to appreciate, connected it with a plant family I already know, thus extended my knowledge and discovered some interesting stories too!

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