Beautiful weed just gets everywhere


As we bid farewell to August, one plant seems to dominate our countryside at this time of year and, strangely, it is not even a native.

Earlier in the month its tall pink flowers provided huge blocks of colour along our roadsides, on waste ground and in our forest plantations.

Later, the air is filled with airborne fluff as its millions of seeds are carried off to germinate by the wind.

I am referring of course to Rosebay Willowherb or “fireweed” as it is often called. The latter name comes from its habit of being first to colonise land laid bare by fire, because its wind-borne seeds get there.

Plants grow and flower as long as there is open space and plenty of light.

As trees and brush grow larger the plants die out, but the seeds remain viable in the soil seed bank for many years; when a new fire or other disturbance occurs that opens up the ground to light again, the seeds germinate.

Some areas with heavy seed counts in the soil can, after burning, be covered with pure dense stands of this species and when in flower the landscape is turned into fields of colour.

In Britain, the plant was considered a rare species in the 18th century, and one confined to a few locations with damp, gravelly soils. It was misidentified as Great Hairy Willowherb in contemporary floras.

The plant’s rise from local rarity to widespread weed seems to have occurred at the same time as the expansion of the railway network, and the associated soil disturbance.

The plant became locally known as bombweed due to its rapid colonization of bomb craters in the Second World War.

It is the county flower of London, probably due to its wartime association.

The city has indelible memories of the drifts of purple willowherb in the bomb sites.

Today, it mingles with buddleias and Michaelmas daisies on railway banks, old walls and waste ground.

Here in the Borders it can be a troublesome weed, and reviled by gardeners and foresters alike, but there’s no denying its beauty when in full bloom in great swathes across the countryside.

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