Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

More local names for Rosebay Willowherb

Early in December 2015 members of the Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland Facebook Group were asked if they knew of any ‘alternative’ names for rosebay willowherb (Chamerion angustifolium).  19 people kindly replied.

Of these 12 mentioned fireweed, typically because ‘it sprang up on bomb sites’ or because ‘it came up after wood and brush fires.’  This name is also used in the U.S.A., ‘because it often colonises areas ravaged by volcanic eruptions’.

Two other names were  mentioned more than once:

Bomb-site weed, which was mentioned twice:  ‘This beautiful plant appeared in abundance in and around bombed buildings in London after the blitz’.    The variation, bomb-weed, was recorded once.

Railway chrysanthemum:  ‘My colleague Doug always used the term railway chrysanthemum whenever relating to rosebay willowherb.  He is about my age (69) and he says that his mum always used it when he was a child.  So the term has been used up here in South Yorkshire for many years.  I love the term myself’.  Also recorded in Lancashire and north Debyshire in the 1940s and 50s, ‘I suppose because it made such a good show’.

Names which were recorded only once include:

Dog’s parasol, used by children ‘at school up the Teme Valley’ in mid Wales.

French willow and frenchaloo, used in south Warwickshire in the 1960s.  The first of these names undoubtedly refers to the plant’s leaves which resemble those of some narrow-leaved willows (Salix), and ‘French’ in plant-names often means ‘exotic’.  The second name is presumably a corruption of the first.

Muck flowers in Salford, Lancashire (now Greater Manchester), in the 1950s, ‘mind you our mum had her own name for everything’.

Shit-tip lily in Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

Singerweed in Glasgow, where ‘it was the first thing to sprout up when the sewing machine factory was demolished.’

Wickup in North America, ‘a variation of wickiup, which is a crude shelter made of brushwood, mats or grass and having an oval frame, especially of a kind used by nomadic American Indians now.  An American friend told me that the long dry stems were used for making mats for the hut’.

Addendum:  According to a woman attending a plant-lore walk in Whitstable, Kent, in August 2022, rosebay willowherb was known as jam pots in Oxfordshire.

Images:  Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire, July 2015; inset, roadside between Glapthorn and Southwick, Northamptonshire, October 2017.

Revised 10 August 2022.