Rosebay willowherb is a perennial native to the UK that flourishes in disturbed soils. It has become widespread perhaps owing to the two World Wars as large areas of land were damaged or burned (which explains one of it’s common names “Bombweed”), allowing it to colonise much larger areas than it had previously. Its grand stems of purple flowers stand out in meadows and hedgerows (although it is less welcome in gardens) and the seeds are curly and fluffy which allow them to be spread long distances in the wind. They can also act as kindling which is interesting because fire helps the seeds to germinate – hence another of it’s common names “Fireweed”. Rosebay willowherb, aside from being quite pretty, has a number of uses from creating a natural cord, to nature’s kindling as mentioned above, but plenty in the kitchen too. Earlier in the year when the shoots are just appearing you can use the stems a bit like asparagus if you find ones that are tender enough. Later on once the flowers appear (but before the plants go to seed) you can split the stems to eat the fresh and sometimes peppery, cucumber-like pith in the centre. Another very popular use is drying the leaves for a delicious wild tea, thanks to the presence of tannins.
The very first step when making a rosebay willowherb tea is obviously to gather your leaves! Depending on the time of year that you’re making your tea, the way to identify the plant will be slightly different with the easiest time being when the lovely purple flowers are out (which they are at the moment). Earlier in the year you can look out for long, pointed leaves where the veins don’t go all the way to the edges and there’s a circular vein that follows the perimeter of the inside of the leaf (see photo below).
A probably unecessary word of caution here: be careful not to confuse rosebay willowherb with foxgloves which are deadly if eaten. They have similar upright stems with purple flowers, but foxgloves have bell or trumpet-like flowers with markings inside that remind me of tiny barnacles, whereas rosebay willowherb flowers are much more open. Foxgloves also have much rounder and less shiny leaves. Identification shouldn’t be too tricky as the plants are very different when you look closely and compare them, so you shouldn’t have any problems. As always with foraging though, if you’re not 100% sure, leave well alone.
A lot of herbal teas are made by just drying the herb and steeping in water to brew, but I’ve used a similar approach to that used to make black tea which involves a process of fermentation or oxidisation to develop its flavour. The steps are very simple, but important for getting a delicious brew at the end. First the leaves are wilted or “withered” to make them pliable, then they are rolled to start an oxidation process where they react with the air (this is where the magic happens), then finally they are dried to stop the oxidation process and prepare them for storage.
The leaves should first be laid out on a tea towel to wilt until you can completely bend the leaf without its central vein snapping. This allows them to be rolled in the next step which is crucial for getting the flavour to develop. If you try to do this straight after picking they won’t roll and will just unfurl or bend in one or two places where the central vein snaps.
After withering, the leaves should be pliable enough to roll between your hands. Each leaf is rolled to “bruise” and begin to break down the cell walls within, starting off the next step of oxidation by increasing the exposure to oxygen.
The leaves are now left to react to the air for the next 48-72 hours and how long you leave them will depend on the flavour you want to develop. I left mine for 72 hours in a jar with the lid loosely fitted to allow some air in. The leaves really start to develop their flavour at this point as the structures within the leaf break down and react with the air. They will begin to turn brown, but this is good.
When the ideal level of oxidation is achieved, the process is stopped with heat which also finishes the drying of the leaf to allow it to last longer. I recently treated myself to a dehydrator now that I’m experimenting a lot more, but you could also dry them in a very low oven overnight. Once the tea is dried, it’s ready to be stored in a cool dry place just like you would store regular tea. To brew, just pour boiling water over the leaves and allow to steep for about 3-4 minutes until ready to drink.
Although fireweed tea takes a bit of time and effort to make, I find it a really therapeutic and mindful process that culminates in enjoying a beautiful brew. I’ve tried to make tea by just drying the leaves which I think is a popular way of making wild herbal teas, but the flavour deepens so much more and becomes more rounded when you put the leaves through the oxidation step and you get a much more fragrant result. Plus I think the rolled tea “pearls” are quite pretty!
Have you tried making your own tea before? Let me know in the comments or over on Instagram if you have a go as I always love to be tagged in your posts and to see what you’re enjoying from this blog.
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