Fireweed is a tall showy wildflower that thrives in open meadows, along streams, roadsides, and forest edges. In some places, this species is known to carpet entire meadows with bright pink flowers. Fireweed offers something useful in every stage of its growth. Early shoots can be eaten raw or lightly cooked. High in vitamins A and C, fireweed shoots provided a tasty spring vegetable. Harvest when the leaves are still close to the stem and pointing upward. Leaves can be made into tea. Snap off at the base. Young leaves can be pinched off and eaten like spinach. As plants age they becomes very fibrous and unpleasant to eat. Flower buds are edible and make a colorful addition to salads. They yield copious nectar that yield a rich, spicy honey. Today, fireweed honey, jelly, and syrup are popular in Alaska where this species grows in abundance.
In spring through fall roots can be dug and mashed into an anti-inflammatory and soothing poultice. Fireweed leaf tea works on our small intestine and colon and aids in digestion.
The name fireweed stems from its ability to colonize areas burned by fire rapidly. It is a member of the Evening Primrose family (Onagraceae), placed in the Chamerion (fireweed) group. The Evening Primrose family contains about 200 species worldwide.
A hardy perennial, fireweed stems grow from 4 to 6 feet high but can reach a towering 9 feet. The numerous long narrow leaves scattered along the stems are the origin of the species name "angustifolium" (Latin for narrow leaved). The leaves are unique; leaf veins are circular and do not terminate at the leaf edges. A spike of up to 50 or more pink to rose-purple flowers adorns the top of the stems from during the summer to mid fall. The four petals alternate with four narrow sepals, and the four cleft stigma curls back with age. Each flower is perched at the end of a long cylindrical capsule bearing numerous seeds. Seeds have a tuft of silky hairs at the end. A single fireweed plant can produce 80,000 seeds! The delicate fluffy parachutes can transport seeds far from the parent plant. The fluff was used by native peoples as fiber for weaving and for padding.
Fireweed can be a beautiful addition to the home garden. Since it reproduces readily from rhizomes as well as from seed, fireweed can quickly take over a garden if left unattended. You will be rewarded for your efforts however, since the colorful flowers are sure to attract lots of pollinators.