What can one tell a Yukoner about fireweed? Isn’t it like talking to an Inuvialuit person about ice?
Fireweed’s colours, height and flowering times are fairly familiar in the body of literature known as ‘northern knowledge’. Here is my attempt at expanding on this:
When I think of a species of plant or animal I generally consider it in three ways: its habitat, its survival adaptations, and its relevancy to people. Yukon’s territorial flower actually has a distribution from Greenland to Alaska and south to California. Therefore these three “lenses” can vary greatly.
Watch the landscape this summer and pay attention to the locations you see fireweed. This plant is called a “pioneer species” because it is often found first in areas that have been altered. It stabilizes the soil in areas that include roadside construction, avalanche paths, gravel bars, and in forests after fires — hence its name. The extremely large disturbance of a volcanic eruption such as Mount St. Helens in 1980 led to fireweed not just being the first to return, but returning in great proliferation. 81 per cent of all seedlings on the mountain the following year were fireweed. Being ubiquitous in the habitat of a mountain slope means fireweed’s importance to wildlife is immense: bears eat the roots and stalks, while countless bees, hummingbirds and butterflies sip its rich and abundant nectar.
The way the plant sets up such successful pollination with this valuable nectar leads us to the next lens, adaptation.
Generally adaptation refers to how a species fits into its environment to survive. Fireweed adapts not just by having sweet nectar, but through colour and smell, all of which attract pollinating insects. It also adapts by producing up to 80,000 seeds —fluffy parachutes that catch the wind and travel great distances. It even has a back up system as it spreads to new areas through its root system. If you learn to identify the plant without the flower, you will notice it growing under trees in the forest around Whitehorse; it’s waiting.
Waiting-to-bloom is another adaption. It is designed to hold-out under the shaded canopy until the next fire clears the trees overhead, at which time it will take over in full sunlight.
Relevance to People
People use this plant for some of the same reasons bears and butterflies do; its leaves are rich in nutrients, and mixing the plant with mint tea gives a unique flavour, while delivering a good dose of vitamin C and A.
In her book The Boreal Gourmet, Michele Genest suggests a great way to incorporate the plant into appetizers for summer guests. Pick up some halloumi cheese and fireweed honey at the market for a classic combo, or mix the honey into a vinaigrette to eat with arugula.
In Boreal Herbal, Beverly Gray proposes fireweed as a jelly and suggests it can be used topically in creams for acne or dry, irritated skin such as eczema because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
Interestingly, First Nations people have used the plant for millennia, whether it was twisted into cord for fishing nets, or the seed fluff was woven with goat wool for blankets. Choice patches of fireweed were even owned by high-ranking First Nations families in BC.
If you have a story or anecdote about our territorial flower, please email me. I would enjoy hearing how people make meaning from this plant.
Did you know? Fireweed quickly colonized the burned ground after the bombing of London in World War II, bringing color to an otherwise grim landscape.