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.
Seeds can be used as a fire-starter and as a cotton-like stuffing. They are so abundant on stalks that you can easily harvest a large amount from a stand of plants. Salish People wove fireweed with the down of mountain goat wool for making blankets.
In spring through fall roots can be dug and mashed into an anti-inflammatory and soothing poultice. Remember that if you miss fireweed at lower elevations you can often travel to the high country and find it at much earlier stages of growth. I have eaten fireweed shoots in mountain meadows in August!
Fireweed shoots are a nutritious spring food containing Vitamin C, flavonoids and beta-carotene. They are delicious when eaten fresh or lightly cooked. I have sautéed them or steamed them like asparagus so they still have a little crunch to them. You can taste a little mucilage in them – a slippery substance that makes your mouth feel smooth. Once the shoots become a little older you may want to peel the fibrous outer skin off. Try pinching young leaves off and eating them like spinach. Larger stalks can be split and inner pith scraped out and eaten as a sweet treat. This is also high in mucilage and has been used as a thickener for soups and other dishes.
When I think of fireweed I think of building strong digestive tone. What does this mean? Remember how fireweed comes into a clear cut or burn and creates an environment that will sustain a strong plant community – not just its own species, but pioneering the process to rebuilding a healthy ecosystem? Fireweed leaf tea works on our small intestine and colon in a similar way to create a healthy environment where beneficial digestive bacteria can flourish, nutrients can flow into our body, and waste products can easily move out. It supports our intestines in discriminating between what we need to absorb and what we need to let go of. This helps keep our whole system in a state of balance. Research shows that our guts are an important part of immune function and other aspects of our health. If they are functioning poorly due to imbalanced flora, inflammation, improper food absorption or food moving through at the wrong speed, many things can go awry. Think of fireweed as a soothing friend to the constant work of digestion.
Lets break down how fireweed works. It is a gentle, yet effective anti-inflammatory that helps conditions including diarrhea, stomach and intestinal inflammation. Tannins in fireweed act as an astringent (see Rose Flower post for more information on how astringents work). By improving the tone of the colon, it slows water from being reabsorbed and can act as a mild laxative. Herbalist Michael Moore taught that fireweed is also very useful in treating people with Candida overgrowth in their intestines. It has antifungal properties and also helps to normalize the flora of the gut.
As previously mentioned, fireweed is high in mucilage. Spring shoots have the most concentrated amount but it is found throughout the plant. Mucilage acts as a soothing agent to calm irritated tissue. This is helpful in digestive system, for sore throats and for lung congestion. Fireweed also has antispasmodic properties, making it useful for asthma, coughs and intestinal spasms.
Fireweed has been a great remedy for my clients in Olympia. Olympia is a college town where many students test vegetarian, vegan and/or gluten free diets. When meat and dairy are replaced with highly processed Tofudi products and daily quarts of soy milk, coupled with the fact that Olympia is a dank dark place where 8 houses out of 10 are infested with mold, it is the perfect recipe for disaster. Allergies and irritable bowel-like symptoms with soft light-colored stools show up followed by intestinal imbalances including Candida overgrowth. With a little guidance on dietary changes, introducing fermented foods and pro-biotics, and drinking fireweed tea, clients would recover quickly.
Try fireweed for digestive imbalances due to a change in diet, when recovering from food poisoning, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic low-grade diarrhea. Fireweed is great at bringing things back to a state of balance but it is not an anti-bacterial or anti-protozoal. If you have giardia or some other type of infection, make sure to treat it, and then use fireweed to get your guts back to normal.
Fireweed has been embraced by many cultural groups. Northwest Native People from Alaska all the way down the West Coast use fireweed for food and medicine. Skokomish elder Bruce Miller also recommended fireweed tea for sore throats and lung congestion. Fireweed was used by early trappers, fur traders and pioneers for a variety of purposes. In the late 1800’s to early 1900’s popular American doctors called Eclectic Physicians and Physiomedicalists incorporated herbal medicine and other modalities into their practice. They used fireweed root and leaf as an astringent and soothing tonic. Through evidence-based practice they found fireweed useful for chronic diarrhea, recovering from food poisoning, prostate inflammation, sore mouth and swollen gums. It was also used for hemorrhages from the lungs, nose, bladder or uterus. According to WM.H Cook in 1869, “They (fireweed leaves) will not meet sudden cases with much prostration; but are excellent for their mild and yet effective influence when the loss of blood is not large but continuous.” (from the Physio-Medical Dispensatory, 1869). Cook recommends 2 ounces of leaves steeped for half an hour in a quart of water. Take 2 ounces every 4-6 hours.
Fireweed is a good long-term remedy. Often, long-standing imbalances do not show up over night but develop over time, and our body takes time to recover. For me, fireweed represents the promise that beauty will return after bodily sickness or environmental destruction. When woodlands are damaged from fire, or clear-cutting, it is fireweed that brings the first promise of recovery. It reminds us that nature has her healing cycle too, one initiated by this lush, fiery medicine springing up in abundance.
Fireweed was one of the first plants to return after Mt. St. Helens erupted.
Photograph taken in August 1984, by Lyn Topinka