Although a native plant, Rosebay willowherb, Chamaenerion angustifolium, was not well known before the twentieth century. John Gerard the famous sixteenth century herbalist and plantsman knew of it as a rare plant growing in rocky, shady places in the north of England. He obtained some seeds and grew it in his London garden where, although ornamental and stately, with ‘brave flowers of great beautie’, it proved to be rather more invasive than in its natural habitat. It went by the name of French Willow, hinting at something slightly foreign and exotic.
By the end of the Victorian era it was beginning to spread, like the Oxford Ragwort, along the railways, and to colonise waste ground. With the felling of woods for the war effort during the First World War, its population exploded. It seemed to do particularly well on ground that had been cleared by burning, and during the Second World War it clothed bomb-sites so spectacularly that it became known as fireweed or bomb-weed. Such a change in character from a shy northern woodland plant to a vigorous weed is startling, and there is a suggestion that these are in fact two separate strains of Chamaenerion angustifolium. DNA analysis has failed to confirm a genetic difference, so the variation may have arisen through adaptive behaviour. [Information from Richard Mabey: Weeds, 2010]
I remember being beguiled by its swathes of glorious colour as a child – there were still bomb sites in those days – and have always had a soft spot for it. It was one of the first plants whose name I learned. Though many people of my parents’ generation disliked it; it flourished on the ruins of their once-familiar townscapes and reminded them of traumatic times. In France it is called herbe de St Antoine and in Sweden Himmelgraes, Herb of Heaven. Linnaeus reported that the leaves were eaten as a vegetable, and the young shoots served up like asparagus. In parts of the USA where it grows in abundance, you can buy Fireweed Honey. [Information from Geoffrey Grigson: The Englishman’s Flora, 1958]
I chose this plant for my submission as it is both well-known and beautifully striking, and has a clear connection to part of our history. And I chose to portray it as a celebratory botanical portrait rather than a scientific illustration. The flowers have four magenta petals, narrow crimson sepals, and four-part stigmas. They are held out on long, glaucous green ovaries flushed with magenta. The many buds are the same alluring combination of green and pink. I decided to paint the colourful flowering spike but to keep the fruiting spike in graphite, to echo the lightness of the seeds with their pappae parachutes. I especially like the way the seeds are so neatly packed into the long pods, floating free once the pods open. I worked from a live specimen, drawing directly onto (old) Arches HP paper with a 3H pencil. The paints used were a mixture of Winsor & Newton and Old Holland, with OH Magenta as the basis for the glorious petal colour.