Fireweed – Chamerion angustifolium

Chamerion angustifolium (L.) Holub ssp. angustifolium

One of the really beautiful sights that we saw while driving from Fairbanks to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean was Fireweed. One of the reasons that they are ‘first colonizers’ is due to fact that they have really deep roots that are not hurt by fires, and they are able to revegitate quickly. I was talking to a Ranger at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and he said that any parcel of land there had a high probability of being burned at least once every 300 years due to lightning strikes. The slow regrowth of trees and shrubby vegetation gives plenty of time for the Fireweed to make thick stands producing beautiful, colorful vistas.

Our October Calendar
(Click on the Calendar for a better look at the Fireweed)

Fireweed Description:
This herb is often abundant in wet calcareous to slightly acidic soils in open fields, pastures, and particularly burned-over lands; the name Fireweed derives from the species’ abundance as a colonizer on burnt sites after forest fires. Its tendency to quickly colonize open areas with little competition, such as sites of forest fires and forest clearings, makes it a clear example of a pioneer species. Plants grow and flower as long as there is open space and plenty of light, as trees and brush grow larger the plants die out, but the seeds remain viable in the soil seed bank for many years, when a new fire or other disturbance occurs that opens up the ground to light again the seeds germinate. Some areas with heavy seed counts in the soil, after burning, can be covered with pure dense stands of this species and when in flower the landscape is turned into fields of color.

The reddish stems of this herbaceous perennial are usually simple, erect, smooth, 0.5-2.5 m (1½-8 feet) high with scattered alternate leaves. The leaves are entire, lanceolate, and pinnately veined. A relative species, Dwarf Fireweed (Epilobium latifolium), grows to 0.3-0.6 m tall.

The radially symmetrical flowers have four magenta to pink petals, 2 to 3 cm in diameter. The styles have four stigmas, which occur in symmetrical terminal racemes.

The reddish-brown linear seed capsule splits from the apex. It bears many minute brown seeds, about 300 to 400 per capsule and 80,000 per plant. The seeds have silky hairs to aid wind dispersal and are very easily spread by the wind, often becoming a weed and a dominant species on disturbed ground. Once established, the plants also spread extensively by underground roots, an individual plant eventually forming a large patch.

The leaves of Fireweed are unique in that the leaf veins are circular and do not terminate on the edges of the leaf, but form circular loops and join together inside the outer leaf margins. This feature makes the plants very easy to identify in all stages of growth. When Fireweed first emerges in early spring, it can closely resemble several highly toxic members of the lily family, however, it is easily identified by its unique leaf vein structure.

The young shoots were often collected in the spring by Native American people and mixed with other greens. They are best when young and tender; as the plant matures the leaves become tough and somewhat bitter. The southeast Native Americans use the stems in the stage. They are peeled and eaten raw. When properly prepared soon after picking they are a good source of vitamin C and pro-vitamin A. The Dena’ina add Fireweed to their dogs’ food. Fireweed is also a medicine of the Upper Inlet Dena’ina, who treat pus-filled boils or cuts by placing a piece of the raw stem on the afflicted area. This is said to draw the pus out of the cut or boil and prevents a cut with pus in it from healing over too quickly.

The root can be roasted after scraping off the outside, but often tastes bitter. To mitigate this, the root is collected before the plant flowers and the brown thread in the middle removed.

In Alaska, candies, syrups, jellies, and even ice cream are made from Fireweed. Monofloral honey made primarily from fireweed nectar has a distinctive, spiced flavor.

In Russia, its leaves were often used as tea substitute and were even exported, known in Western Europe as Kapor tea. Fireweed leaves can undergo fermentation, much like real tea. Nowadays Fireweed tea is also occasionally consumed.

Notes from Foraging in the Pacific Northwest:
* shoots are edible raw.
* young leaves are edible raw.
* flowers are edible raw.
* flower bud clusters can be cooked as vegetable.
* stem pith can be added to soups as thickener.
* grows in open, disturbed areas in foothill, montane, alpine and subalpine regions.
* warning: may act as a laxative if eaten in quantity.

Because Fireweed can colonize disturbed sites, even following an old oil spill, it is often used to reestablish vegetation. It grows in (and is native to) a variety of temperate to arctic ecosystems. Although it is also grown as an ornamental plant, some may find it too aggressive in that context.

Fireweed is the floral emblem of Yukon.

Fireweed Distribution:
fireweed-distributionUnited States and Canada

Line Drawing

Fieldguide to Alaskan Wildflowers, A roadside Guide: Verna E Pratt
Wikipedia (verified)
Internet, ‘Foraging in the Pacific Northwest’.

We will try to get the November calendar published earlier next month.
It features the extraordinarily beautiful Dwarf Fireweed,
photographed high in the breathtaking alpine regions of Alaska’s mountains.

Please leave a comment.

Troy and Martha


About Troy

Retired Scientist and Naturalist. Avid Bible reader
This entry was posted in Alaska, Naturalists, USDA Plant Database, Wildflowers and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Fireweed – Chamerion angustifolium

  1. A stunning and precious plant. Quite beautiful

  2. John says:

    Your fireweed photo is gorgeous!

  3. wiganshale says:

    according to wikipaedia, this is the same plant as our rosebay willow herb but I’ve never come across any mention of it as a herb ( as implied in its name). Thanks for the info. on its uses.

  4. Pingback: I C U Nature

  5. Pingback: Dwarf Fireweed – Chamerion latifolium « I C U Nature

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