Fireweed, A Food And A Medicine

Categories: Survival

Fireweed is a pioneer.  It’s tiny seeds ride the wind like parachutes and begin new life where fate carries them.  Even in clear-cuts, roadsides and burns, fireweed plants itself and rises up – stately, steadfast and strong.  It rarely stands solo.  Fireweed builds a thriving plant community through spreading seeds and lateral root networks.  In summer, rose to violet-colored flowers bring immeasurable beauty to stark landscapes.  They are so papery thin that they appear luminescent.  I blush sometimes when I take a close look.  They remind me of the tender blaze of love, or a sweet encounter that leaves me breathless and awed. 

Other names:  spukWu’say (Twana), willow herb, Epilobium angustifolium

Identifying fireweed:  The most distinctive thing about fireweed is its gorgeous pink to purple colored flowers, which grow in a spike shape in sunny pockets all over the Northwest.  Flowers have four petals, and resemble the flowers of other evening primrose plant relatives.  They will occasionally create secondary branches of flowers – especially when grazed by deer or other foragers.

Unlike most other plants, flowers bloom low on the stem first and work their way up toward the top.  On a recent trip to Alaska I learned how beloved this plant is, but many people feel bitter-sweet when they see it flower because it foretells the coming of winter.  It begins blooming low on the stem in the height of summer and by the time the blooms reach the very top the first snow is imminent.

Fireweed fruits are long and very narrow.  They spit open to release hundreds of seeds, each with a white feathery tuft that easily flies in the wind.  Fireweed usually grows in large patches.  Each above-ground plant may be connected to others by roots.  Purplish-red stems grow up to seven feet tall and are covered with willow-shaped leaves that are dark green above and silvery below.  The central vein is distinctly light-colored and extends straight out to the tip of the leaf.  Lateral leaf veins have a unique quality – they do not extend to the outer edge of the leaf, but loop together near the margin.  This makes it easy to identify before it flowers.

Where it grows:  Fireweed is often the first plant to return to burned or logged areas.  It prefers a wet start followed by good sun exposure.  You will find patches along roadsides, forest edges, clear cuts, and in open fields throughout the Northwest.

Harvesting and preparation:  Fireweed offers something useful in every stage of its growth.  Early shoots can be eaten raw or lightly cooked.  Harvest when the leaves are still close to the stem and pointing upward.  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.

Leaves are harvested for tea around the time the plant flowers.  An elder taught me how to harvest by holding the stem just below the flowers with one hand and then pinch the stem with my other thumb and pointer finger and pushing down the length of the stem, gathering the leaves that are green and vibrant looking.  This way insects can enjoy the flower nectar (fireweed honey is one of my favorites) and the plant can reseed itself.  Dry the leaves in baskets or paper bags.  Store in glass jars or bags.  They will remain potent for about a year.  I LOVE the smell of dried fireweed, which has notes of berry and citrus, and find that I crave it sometimes.

Making Tea - Use one small handful of leaves per cup of boiled water and steep about 15 minutes.  Drink up to three cups a day.  The tea has a pleasant mild taste and can be mixed with other herbs for flavor.  Turn on to page 2....

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