Greater Willowherb; Epilobium hirsutum

Greater Willowherb is also known by quite a few other names. I had it down as  plums and custard but that is generally a name given to a type of fungus.  However that is my memory of it which probably came from my Mother, but she did get things a bit wrong sometimes.

Now I quite like that name as the purple petals are quite a plum colour and the stamens in the centre are a light custard colour. Not the bright yellow packet stuff but the real egg yolk home made custard.

This species grows quite large, it can easily get over two meters in height and it is also a strong sturdy plant. The flowers are less concentrated than those of Rosebay Willowherb but are none the less quite showy. It will grow on the edge of woodland and tolerates some shade, it also seems to me to prefer a damp soil. I have some growing in our section of Ninewells wood and it grows in a corner where there is a bit of a drainage ditch, this sometimes has water in it during the winter and spring. The plant is quite hairy, the leaves feel soft and felt like, thus it scientific name…hirsutum

Right, lets get back to the common names for what they are worth, there are many but the commonest is codlins-and-cream, but also we have apple-pie and cherry-pie. There are various explanations and none very convincing. One I have read is that codlins are a type of apple,and that the leaves of this willowherb have a smell or taste which is somewhat similar to apples and was once used to steep in cream to produce a flavour like apples in cream. However I am always skeptical about these explanations and my reason on this occasion is that why would you put willowherb leaves in cream to replicate the flavour of apples which are hardly a rare or expensive commodity.

Above is a photo of the seeds as you can see long capsules and each one producing a profusion of light fluffy wind borne seeds.

This species along with other willowherbs are the food plant of various caterpillars and probably the most impressive is the Elephant Hawk moth. I remember as a small boy collecting caterpillars of this moth from old bomb sites in East London. This was in the early 1960,s and there were still quite a few derelict sites dotted about, of course Fire weed as it was know grew in these areas and it was a haven for moths, also for boys who collected moths.  Fireweed is of course the name given to Rosebay Willowherb and not Greater Willowherb. I kept the caterpillars and fed them Willowherb, picking replacement plants every few days so that they had a good supply of fresh food.  The plants were placed in an old milk bottle full of water and a large paper bag was placed over the plants with the caterpillars inside. The base of the paper bag was scrunched up and tied so that the caterpillars could not escape or fall into the water in the milk bottle. I remember looking after several species in this way, There were a lot of Poplar trees lining the roads of East London and these were the food plant of Poplar Hawk moths and Puss moths. Also there were Lime trees and these were good for Lime Hawk Moths.

( photo of Elephant Hawk moth from wikipedia…. thanks)

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