Fireweed (macro)

Fireweed is the follower of boreal forest fires and is the official flower of the Yukon. It grows in blazing-magenta abundance all over the territory and throughout the rest of Canada and Alaska as well. Fireweed is tremendously hardy—as an example, one year after the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state, 81% of all seedlings present on the mountainside were fireweed. The most prominent plant visible after any boreal forest fire is almost always fireweed. The fruit of the fireweed can contain as many as five hundred seeds and a single plant can produce as many as 80,000 seeds per year. Despite its high seed production, fireweed propagates most successfully through its rhizomes or spreading root system. It also helps stabilize the soil and reduces erosion while the burn area regenerates.

Fireweed is also a very beneficial plant for humans. The flowers, leaves, and shoots are edible, and many parts of the plant have medicinal uses. As a pollination and honey plant, it also plays an important part in the ecological hierarchy of the northern boreal forest, providing large amounts of nectar for bees—not to mention, fireweed honey is absolutely wonderful. We also shouldn’t overlook one of its most pleasing benefits: it creates a colorful and aromatic vista throughout the boreal forest that stimulates and renews energy on all levels.

Other Names & EtymologyFireweed, Willowherb, Rosebay-Willoherb, St. Anthony’s Laurel
Formerly known as Epilobium angustifolium.
FamilyOnagraceae (Evening Primrose family)

Botanical Description

Fireweed

This perennial herb has erect fibrous stems and can reach up to 1.5 m high, arising from far-reaching horizontal roots. Leaves alternate, lance-shaped, 5-20 cm long, hairless, paler, and veiny beneath. They have tall flowering stalks, the flowers opening at the base in early summer; the last flowers bloom at the terminus of the stalk, which heralds the end of summer. The petals are magenta rose-pink, that are 10-12 mm long. The seed capsules are long, pink, and approximately 4-10 cm in length, which develop at the base of the flowering stalk while upper flowers are still opening.

Habitat and Range

Considered a “pioneer” species, it grows in disturbed soils and recently burned areas. It’s also found in open woods, on hillsides, and on stream banks. It has a circumpolar distribution and it ranges from southern Greenland to Alaska, then south to California. It is widespread in Canada and in NWT and the Yukon.

Plant Parts Used– roots
– leaves
– flowers
Harvest TimeIn spring, the leaves and roots.
In summer, the leaves and flowers.
In autumn, the roots.

Medicinal Uses

Medicinal ActionsAnti-Inflammatory, anti-irritant, antimicrobial, antiseptic
Medicinal PreparationsCream, oil, poultice, salve, tea/infusion, tincture, vinegar

Medicinally, fireweed tea has a mild laxative effect and is used by First Nation peoples to dispel intestinal worms, for digestive upsets, and topically for burns and other skin ailments. More recently, in experimental studies, tannins have been identified in fireweed that can reduce benign prostatic hyperplasia, which is a non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate gland that can interfere with urination. Fireweed also has potent anti-inflammatory qualities. Topically, fireweed extract can be used in creams, salves, or poultices for dry, irritated skin, such as eczema or psoriasis.

Food Uses

Nutritional Profile– Vitamin C
– Vitamin A
Cosmetic UsesDue to its anti-inflammatory properties, fireweed is excellent for skin care to help reduce redness and acne.
Other UsesFireweed flower essence is used for shock or trauma; energy stagnation on any level; feeling burned out; weak connection to the earth. Its healing qualities are that it strengthens the grounding connection to the earth; helps break up and move out old energy patterns that are being held in the etheric body so that new cycles of revitalization and renewal can be initiated.

Fireweed is sometimes called “wild asparagus” because the young spring shoots are often prepared and eaten like asparagus. These shoots are high in vitamins A and C, and are a healthy addition to spring salads. For centuries First Nation peoples throughout the circum polar north have eaten the spring shotos raw, as a steamed vegetable, or steeped in a relaxing tea. Some use fireweed leaves throughout the summer; the larger leaves are excellent added to a stir-fry with other wild greens or just fried up with a bit of butter, garlic, and other garden herbs. Fireweed jelly (recipe below) has a lovely, delicate flavor. In Russia, fermented and dried fireweed leaves are brewed for kapporie or “kapor tea.” Kapor tea is high in both vitamin A and C and is used to relieve stomach aches.

Fireweed Jelly Recipe

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Works Cited

“Fireweed.” The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North, by Beverley Gray, Aroma Borealis Press, Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada, 2011, pp. 91–97.