A breeze is blowing through the window carrying the sweet fragrance of fireweed with it. It smells sweet and spicy. The aroma gently lingers in the air around me.
I’ve been cultivating fireweed in my flower garden since we moved to our homestead. It sits just beneath my office window.
The beautiful pink flowers of fireweed remind me of the far North. At school we learned that you could suck on the spring stalks for a sweet treat. I would bring bouquets home for mum, plucking a few flowers and sucking on the sweetness as I walked. Memories of watching my son splashing rocks into the lake, running happily through the tall stalks with glorious pink flowers remain vivid. Fireweed and I have been friends for a long time.
This flower is known by many names. In Canada many call it great willowherb and in Britain fireweed is better known as rosebay willowherb. The cree call it Oja’cid’bik meaning slippery root, or soap root and the Chipewyan call it Gon Dhi’ele meaning Fire New Branch. Regardless of geography or culture, those that know fireweed share a healthy appreciation for the many gifts that it bestows upon us.
Fireweed is a traditional medicine among many indigenous peoples. The whole plant, roots, stem, leaves and flowers, are used for a wide range of healing and culinary purposes. This plant is simply fascinating to study! Fireweed is best known as a healer of burns, including those of mother earth. Whenever forest fires have devastated the land, fireweed will appear. Their beautiful magenta flowers will spread across the injured land beginning the healing process.
One legend of the fireweed tells of an Indian maiden. To rescue her lover from an enemy tribe which was preparing to torture him, she set fire to the forest about their camp. While they fled before the flames, she lifted the wounded man and carried him off through the woods. Some of the tribe, unfortunately, saw what she was doing and followed her. With her heavy burden she could not travel fast enough to escape but wherever she touched her moccasined feet to the black ashes of the forest floor a flame sprang up in her wake and drove the enemy backward. When at last they gave up the chase, flames continued to leap about her but they took the form of a brilliant flower that blazed through the blackened skeleton of the forest long after she had passed ~ source: Old Man’s Garden. Gray’s Publishing; 1954 P. 94.
Where to find fireweed
You’ll find fireweed growing wild throughout the temperate Northern hemisphere, ranging from Siberia across North America. It grows in meadows, forests, river edges, roadsides and disturbed land and will often be found growing densely on charred land. It is not particularly choosy when it comes to soil ph and I’ve found it very easy to cultivate in our own garden. Around here it blooms in mid August.
Fireweed has natural antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties. It contains a bioactive molecule called oenothein-B, which has impressive anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant powers. It is also antimicrobial, antiseptic, antioxidant, emollient (soothing externally) laxative and tonic.
Fireweed leaves are a great chamomile replacement. Excellent for calming the digestive system. Collect them before the flowers are in bloom for the most potency. You can dry the leaves as you would with any herb or you can follow a traditional fermentation process – there are many tutorials online for doing so. The leaves can be infused in oils and used to treat minor skin conditions (acne, inflammation etc).
Fireweed roots can be infused into a slave used to treat small sores & insect bites. A fresh root poultice can also be made to draw out impurities and infection.
Flowers can be dried for tea or infused in oils to make salves lotions and ointments. Foe best results, harvest the flowers just as they open for the most medicinal value.
The blackfoot rubbed fireweed flowers on their mittens and rawhide thongs as waterproofing. The inner pith from the stems was dried, powdered and rubbed on the hands and face as protective talc from winter’s icy grip.
- The fireweed shoots can be cooked and eaten like asparagus (I’ve never done this) and the young tender leaves are wonderful in salads or as a sautéed green.
- The flowers can be transformed into jellies and other sweet treats.
- The Bees love it too! Fireweed honey is highly sought after. Some bee-keepers drive their bees and hives to areas rich in fireweed for the blossoming season.
There is so much more to fireweed than I have shared here.
If it is a plant native to where you live I strongly recommend getting familiar and maybe even cultivating some for own garden.
Always remember to harvest sustainably. Before harvesting take time to study and observe this plant. learn to love and appreciate this magnificent plant and it’s gifts and then take only what you need.