Great or Spiked Willow-herb – Flowers

(Chamaenerion angustifolium)

Evening Primrose family

(Epilobium angustifolium of Gray)

Flowers—Magenta or pink, sometimes pale, or rarely white, more or less than 1 in. across, in an elongated, terminal, spike-like raceme. Calyx tubular, narrow, in 4 segments ; 4 rounded, spreading petals ; 8 stamens ; 1 pistil, hairy at base ; the stigma 4-lobed. Stem : 2 to 8 ft. high, simple, smooth, leafy. Leaves : Narrow, tapering, willow-like, 2 to 6 in. long. Fruit: A slender, curved, violet-tinted capsule, from 2 to 3 in. long, containing numerous seeds attached to tufts of fluffy, white, silky threads.

Preferred Habitat—Dry soil, fields, roadsides, especially in burnt-over districts.

Flowering Season—June—September.

Distribution—From Atlantic to Pacific, with few interruptions ; British Possessions and United States southward to the Carolinas and Arizona. Also Europe and Asia.

Spikes of these beautiful brilliant flowers towering upward above dry soil, particularly where the woodsman’s axe and forest fires have devastated the landscape, illustrate Nature’s abhorrence of ugliness. Other kindly plants have earned the name of fire-weed, but none so quickly beautifies the blackened clearings of the pioneer, nor blossoms over the charred trail in the wake of the locomotive. Beginning at the bottom of the long spike, the flowers open in slow succession upward throughout the summer, leaving behind the attractive seed-vessels, which, splitting length-wise in September, send adrift white silky tufts attached to seeds that will one day cover far distant wastes with beauty. Almost perfect rosettes, made by the young plants, are met with on one’s winter walks.

Epi, upon, and lobos, a pod, combine to make a name applicable to many flowers of this family. In general structure the fire-weed closely resembles its relative the evening primrose. Bees, not moths, however, are its benefactors. Coming to a newly opened flower, the bee finds abundant pollen on the anthers and a sip of nectar in the cup below. At this stage the flower keeps its still immature style curved downward and back-ward lest it should become self-fertilized—an evil ever to be guarded against by ambitious plants. In a few days, or after the pollen has been removed, up stretches the style, spreading its four receptive stigmas just where an in-coming bee, well dusted from a younger flower, must certainly leave some pollen on their sticky surfaces.

The Great Hairy Willow-herb (Epilobium hirsutum), whose white tufted seeds came over from Europe in the ballast to be blown over Ontario and the Eastern States, spreads also by underground shoots, until it seems destined to occupy wide areas. In these showy magenta flowers, about one inch across, the stigmas and anthers mature simultaneously ; but cross-fertilization is usually insured because the former surpass the latter, and naturally are first touched by the insect visitor. In default of visits, however, the stigmas, at length curling backward, come in contact with the pollen-laden anthers. The fire-weed, on the contrary, is unable to fertilize itself.

A pale magenta-pink or whitish, very smallflowered, branching species, one to two feet high, found in swamps from New Brunswick to the Pacific, and southward to Delaware, is the Linear-leaved Willow-herb (E. lineare), whose distinguishing features are its very narrow, acute leaves, its hoariness throughout, the dingy threads on its tiny seeds, and the occasional bulblets it bears near the base of the stem. It is scarcely to be distinguished by one not well up in field practice from another bog lover, the Downy or Soft Willow-herb (E. strictum), which, however, is a trifle taller, glandular throughout, and with sessile, not petioled, leaves. The Purple-leaved Willow-herb (E. coldratum), common in low grounds, may best be named by the reddish-brown coma to which its seeds are attached. Both leaves and stem are often highly colored.