The fall, with its cool crisp nights and colorful leaves, seems like a long way off right now. But one of the most iconic flowers of fall is starting its path towards brilliance right now, as a small, nondescript weed. Fireweed is one of the most common local wildflowers, and it’s hard to find a postcard that doesn’t show these bright pink blooms in the background. But this weed-like plant is so much more than just a picture-perfect blossom. It also carries a past rich with folklore, history and utility.
Fireweed is a perennial plant that begins its life from the feathery wind-dispersed seeds of yesteryear’s plants, or more often, by sprouting from the already established rhizomes running through the forest floor. These early shoots are narrow, with the long lance-shaped leaves clinging to the soft, pliable stem. The young stem has not yet toughened up with the fibrous tissue that will later protect it from herbivores, and the leaves lack the bitterness that they will develop later in life. Simply pluck the young plant from its soil and pop it into your mouth. You can also collect several and saute them in a little butter and garlic if you want a more satisfying meal.
As these young shoots mature, they are still edible, but they become tougher and bitter. The tough fibers from the stem can be peeled and the pith eaten raw or boiled. When the flower buds appear, these can be eaten as well and added raw to salads or pickled like capers. The plant as a whole is also good for you, containing 90 times the Vitamin A and 4 times the Vitamin C of oranges. Traditionally, fireweed leaves and flowers were used for relief from numerous skin problems, including psoriasis and eczema. Recent medical research has built on this cultural knowledge, and a 5 percent extract has been developed that improved redness and skin irritation better than a 1 percent Cortisone cream.
The mythology associated with fireweed is a classic tale, one slightly blurred by retelling. The story, from an unspecified tribe, began when an Indian maiden’s lover was taken prisoner by an enemy tribe. To rescue him, she set fire to the camp, sneaking in to carry off her wounded lover while the enemies fled the flames. As she ran, some of the enemy tribe saw her and turned to give chase. She couldn’t run very fast with her heavy burden, but as she ran, her footsteps turned to fresh flames charring the earth. As the enemy was turned back, the flames continued to grow, but now they took the form of brilliant magenta fireweed flowers that surrounded the happy couple.
Modern mythology continues, and the fireweed plant is rumored to tell us when the snows of winter will begin. The fireweed flower spike opens from the bottom upward, unfurling a new and perfect, four-petal bloom that lasts for only two days. The first day, the flower releases a cloud of turquoise-colored pollen into the air, fertilizing any nearby receptive flowers. On the second day, no pollen is released, but the flower is now receptive to pollen from other plants. In this way, the fireweed plant increases its chances of cross-pollination. According to legend, when the last flower on the top of the stalk blooms, there are a short six weeks until the onset of winter.
The young fireweed shoots, just starting to peek out right now, will turn too quickly into the bright pink flowers that dot the late summer landscape this year, like every year. We tend to wait to enjoy plants at this stage, but waiting until the blossoming might mean you’re too late to really enjoy the fruits of this forest friend.
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate programs at Walking Mountains Science School. Squires is happy that summer is here and has already spent many hours nurturing the blooms in her backyard vegetable garden.