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What is Epilobium?

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  • Written By: Emma G.
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 10 November 2019
  • Copyright Protected:
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Epilobium is the name given to a genus of plants that belong to the Onagraceae family of flowering plants. It includes about 180 different species. They grow all over the world and often appear as local symbols or in regional folk legends. Native peoples of various countries have used the plant both as food and medicine.

The common name for Epilobium is willow herb, but specific varieties have other names that vary by locality. They grow mostly in subarctic, temperate, or subarctic regions. Depending on the variety, Epilobium can be an annual, perennial, or semiannual. They grow in sunny patches of land and spread quickly. As they dislike shade, they are easily choked out by taller plants, so they rarely become invasive.

Epilobium produces small flowers that generally have four petals. They are usually pink but can vary from yellow to red in a few varieties. They bloom from July until about September. When the flowers go by, the plant produces a capsule full of fluff. This protects the seeds when the capsule is closed and helps them to drift on the wind when it bursts.

Although for the most part Epilobium is considered a weed, some people do cultivate it. One of the more commonly cultivated varieties is the fireweed. Varieties of the plant are used as an official symbol of several counties and territories. These include the Yukon Territory, Canada; Hedmark County, Norway; and Southern Ostrobothnia, Finland.

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Fireweed grows wild in Alaska. According to local folk wisdom, it can be used to predict the coming of winter. Some locals say that once the Alaskan fireweed goes to seed, only six weeks remain before winter strikes.

In North America, honey made from Epilobium flowers is prized for its richness and spicy edge. Though bitter, most of the young plant can be eaten by humans. Varieties of the plant are used to flavor various candies, jellies, and syrups. Many caterpillars also enjoy the taste.

For hundreds of years, native peoples have used Epilobium in alternative medicine to reduce inflammation, treat skin conditions, and improve sexual function. Some modern drug companies have created medicines derived from the plant that are used to treat benign prostatic hyperplasia (BHP). BHP is the medical term for an enlarged prostate that is not caused by cancer. The treatment has few side effects when compared to more mainstream drug treatments for BHP. More study is needed to determine the safety and effectiveness of this treatment.

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