It is the middle of summer in the Pacific northwest and the fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) is blooming everywhere. I’m seeing it all over Mt. Hood National Forest, near Mt. St. Helens, and along the Springwater Corridor in Portland and Gresham. A month ago it was just beginning to bloom in Alaska. Fireweed is a pioneer plant, one of the first to establish itself in disturbed soils – often along paths, roadsides, and anywhere a fire has burned (hence the name). It can grow to an impressive height of nine feet, but it is more commonly seen up to six feet high. It’s green leaves are long and narrow with unique circular leaf veins. The roots connect and form large colonies of fireweed. Rarely will you see a single plant growing by itself.
Fireweed’s pink-purple flowers are the star of the show. They bloom in a spike at the end of its stem, often with as many as 50 papery thin pink flowers. The flowers bloom from the bottom of the spike to the top. In Alaska, fireweed is an indicator of the coming of winter. Once the top flowers bloom, the first snow is likely less than 30 days away. Once the blooms are spent, they produce a capsule filled with fluffy white seeds. One fireweed plant can produce as many as 80,000 seeds.
Fireweed is edible and a favorite of many foragers. It’s leaves and shoots are high in Vitamin A and C. Leaves can be used to make tea and early shoots can be eaten raw or lightly cooked as a tangy spring vegetable. Fireweed nectar is used to make honey and syrup. It has been used as a traditional medicine, too. It has anti-inflammatory properties and has been used to aid in digestive disorders, sore throats and congested lungs.
It was one of the very first plants to return to the soil after Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980.