This may seem like a strange topic for a post, but oddly enough I was inspired by yesterday’s post about the northern lights. If you didn’t read it, I’m from Labrador, in northern Canada, and while the aurora is always a little chancy, you can count on fireweed every summer.
Fireweed, or chamerion angustifolium, is a true survivor. The picture above shows it blazing magenta around burned-out trees, a familiar sight to northerners. The seeds are their secret weapon: like dandelions’, they’re fluffy and borne on the wind, which gives them a long reach. There can be up to 500 seeds from a single plant, and they wil come back from a tiny bit of root left in the ground.
If you want to be nice you can call it a pioneer species, which sounds enterprising and brave. I know I sound sarcastic, but it is apparently a very useful plant since it will recolonize oil spills. Even scarier, fireweed can be used to find uranium deposits, since the uranium causes a mutation that results in many many more white flowers than usual.
Native people have a legend about fireweed; once a young man was wounded and captured by an enemy tribe, and his girlfriend came to rescue him. She set a fire at one end of the camp as a distraction while she carried the wounded man away. Unfortunately, they were spotted, and the other tribe gave chase. The Great Spirit took pity, and fire shot up out of the girl’s footsteps and blazed through the forest. The two got away, and fireweed sprang up wherever the fires had burned.
Another concerns First Woman of the Tlinget, Asintmah, who wove a blanket from fireweed fibres, then went to the four directions with it, spreading her blanket over the Earth. Then she sat on the edge of the blanket and wove songs into the blanket, easing the birth pains of Earth until the first animals came forth. (There is also a corona on Venus named for her.)
Fireweed does have medicinal uses, and is good for the skin. The Ojibwa called it soap root and used it as poultice.The Woods Cree of Saskatchewan used it to expel internal parasites, and the Blackfoot used it as an enema, or to treat constipation.
Apparently you can eat the young shoots and leaves, and EdibleWildFood gives a recipe for fireweed syrup. The Russians call it Ivan’s Tea. Moose are fond of it, anyway, as are bees. (Fireweed honey, anyone?)
One thing I found funny when I lived in England is that fireweed there follows the train lines – the seeds flourished in the disturbed earth. Even funnier, the British considered it a rare plant once upon a time, until first the construction of the railways and then the Blitz showed its true colours. (During WWII it was called bombweed.)
Epilobum is circumboreal, meaning that it has colonized the forested parts of North America and Eurasia. This distribution map shows how it has colonized most of Canada and the US.
On a less environmental note, legend has it that each fireweed is the soul of a tree that caught fire.