project reflections #14

Fireweed

The branches come out of the ground in great numbers, growing, to the height of sixe foote, garnished with brave flowers of great beautie, consisting of fower leaves a piece, of an orient purple colour. The cod is long … and full of downie matter, which flieth away with the winde when the cod is opened.

John Gerard, The Herball, 1597

Rosebay Willowherb, or Fireweed as it is know in North America, is both abundant and widely distributed throughout the Upperthorpe and Netherthorpe edgelands.

It has, to my mind, the great distinction of two quite separate yet equally spectacular stages in its reproductive cycle. The first occurs with the flowering of the vivid magenta spears – often seen waving in stark chromatic contrast against the blue of the summer sky. The second stage occurs at the end of the ripening within the seed pods of the delicate and silk-like seeds – on the warmest days the rising air currents will be alive with these delightful, dancing, graceful strands as they make their escape …

Epilobium angustifolium, commonly known as Fireweed, or Rosebay Willowherb, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the willowherb family Onagraceae. It is native throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere, including large parts of the boreal forests. The species name angustifolium is a portmanteau of the Latin words angusti meaning ‘narrow’, and folium meaning ‘leaf’.

Rosebay Willowherb is often abundant in wet calcareous to slightly acidic soils in open fields, pastures, and particularly burned-over lands; the name Fireweed derives from the species’ abundance as a coloniser on burnt sites after forest fires. Its tendency to quickly colonise open areas with little competition makes it a clear example of a pioneer species. These plants grow and flower as long as there is open space and plenty of light; as trees and brush grow larger the plants die out, but the seeds remain viable in the soil seed bank for many years – and when a new conflagration or other disturbance occurs that opens up the ground to light again the seeds germinate. Some areas with heavy seed counts in the soil can, after fire, be covered with pure dense stands of this species and when in flower the landscape is turned into fields of colour.

In Britain the plant was considered a rare species in the 18th century, and one confined to a few locations with damp, gravelly soils. It was sometimes mis-identified as Great Hairy Willowherb in contemporary floras. The plant’s rise from local rarity to widespread weed seems to have occurred at the same time as the expansion of the railway network, and the associated soil disturbance.

Rosebay Willowherb became locally known as bombweed due to its rapid colonisation of bomb craters in the Second World War.

The reddish stems of this herbaceous perennial are usually simple, erect, smooth, 0.5–2.5 m (1½–8 feet) high with scattered alternate leaves. The leaves are entire, lanceolate, and pinnately veined. The radially symmetrical flowers have four magenta to pink petals, 2 to 3 cm in diameter. The styles have four stigmas, which occur in symmetrical terminal racemes. The leaves of fireweed are unique in that the leaf veins are circular and do not terminate on the edges of the leaf but form circular loops and join together inside the outer leaf margins. This feature makes the plants very easy to identify in all stages of growth. When fireweed first emerges in early spring, it can closely resemble several highly toxic members of the lily family. However, it is easily identified by its unique leaf vein structure.

The reddish-brown linear seed capsule splits from the apex. It bears many minute brown seeds, about 300 to 400 per capsule and 80,000 per plant. The seeds have silky hairs to aid wind dispersal and are very easily spread by the wind. Once established, the plants also spread extensively by underground roots, an individual plant eventually forming a large patch.

The young shoots were often collected in the spring by Native American people and mixed with other greens for eating. They are best when young and tender: as the plant matures the leaves become tough and somewhat bitter. The southeast Native Americans use the stems in this stage. They are peeled and consumed raw. The root can be roasted after scraping off the outside, but often tastes bitter. To mitigate this, the root is collected before the plant flowers and the brown thread in the middle removed. The Dena’ina add fireweed to their dogs’ food.

Fireweed is also a medicine of the Upper Inlet Dena’ina, who treat pus-filled boils or cuts by placing a piece of the raw stem on the afflicted area. This is said to draw the pus out of the cut or boil and prevents a cut with pus in it from healing over too quickly.

Fireweed is the floral emblem of Yukon.

Paul Evans, 3 January 2012

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