Because who doesn’t love alliteration?
Rosebay willowherb has enchanted me this year. Until recently I’d always seen it as a weed – which I define as an invasive plant with no known medicinal value. But I was wrong: the whole plant has powerful astringent and mild antimicrobial properties, and a syrup of the flowers makes a good gentle medicine for diarrhoea. The Dena’ina people of Alaska use the plant as both food and medicine, as well as a seasonal indicator: when the flowers bloom it means summer is coming to an end, and when the leaves turn red cold weather is coming.
Rosebay willowherb used to be an uncommon woodland plant in this country, until the devestation of the World Wars and the subsequent boom in development created just the right conditions for this plant to thrive: burned and disturbed land. With old mill sites being developed all along the canal, there is plenty of it blooming in this town. The flowers I picked came from the site of the old Derdale mill, where the people who lived in this house would probably have worked once.
Recently I’ve become intrigued by Ruskin Apothecary‘s idea of the ‘one mile pharmacopeia’ – making as much medicine as possible from plants growing within a one mile radius of our home. Rosebay willowherb certainly fits the bill. And while there is plenty of meadowsweet growing here as well – my preferred herbal astringent and remedy for diarrhoea – not everyone can use a herb so rich in salicylic acid / aspirin. One such person is my grandma, who has had a few bouts of tummy upset recently, and encouraged me to have a go at making rosebay willowherb syrup when I discussed it as a remedy. So I did!
The recipe I used – from Hedgerow Medicine – calls for 20 flower heads per 500ml water. Unsure of whether ‘flower heads’ meant flower spikes or simply flowers, I went out and filled a small jar with blooms; an easy walk in the sunshine up to Stackhills Bridge and back. Back home again, I simmered the flowers in 500ml filtered water for 10 minutes, until the blooms lost all their colour; then strained the liquid into a sterilised jug, discarded the flowers, and boiled the remaining liquid for a further 10 minutes with 100g sugar and the juice of a lemon. And that was it: rosebay willowherb syrup, ready to send down to my grandma, with a little extra to keep for us
As with all my concoctions, I tasted a little bit of the ‘extra’ to check it was ok. It definitely tastes medicinal! It has the suck-your-cheeks-in astringency of strong black tea – which, after all, is the point. I’ll let you know how grandma gets on with it in a few weeks…
And, you know, disclaimer: check your sources, be aware of contraindications, make sure you know what you’re picking and pick it considerately, and be excellent to each other.