Fireweed

Chamerion angustifolium

Species distinguishing characteristics: 

  • Unbranched perennial, 30-240 cm tall, that forms colonies
  • Narrow, stalkless, willow-shaped leaves
  • Leaf veins join to form a loop parallel to leaf edges
  • Dense clusters of stalked magenta flowers at top of stem
  • Long seedpods crammed with silky-fluffy seeds

Family Characteristics: 

  • Tall or branched clusters of flowers with 4 separate petals and 4 sepals
  • Flower parts attach at the top of an elongated ovary
  • Pollen organs (stamens) in 4s (usually 8)
  • Fruit is a long, 4-chambered capsule
  • White tuft of hair attached to each fruit
  • Central leaf vein is distinctly lighter than the rest of leaf

Growth habitat: 

Erect unbranched perennial, 30 to 240 cm tall.  Often grows in large patches.  Formerly considered part of genus Epilobium.

Leaves and stems: 

Stems mostly unbranched, often purplish, and covered with short hairs in the upper part.  Stalkless leaves crowd along the stem and are alternately arranged.  Leaves are smooth margined, 2-20 cm long by 0.5-3.5 cm wide, and willow-shaped tapering to a point.  Leaves are short-haired on the upper surface and slightly paler to silvery downy below.  Leaf veins join in loops inside the outer margins rather than terminating at the edges, and the central vein is distinctly lighter than the rest of the surface.  Leaves turn vivid red in autumn.

Flowers: 

Dense, elongated clusters of numerous (>15) stalked, bright reddish-pink to magenta flowers at top of the stem.  Saucer-shaped flowers, 2-5 cm across, have 4 broad petals and 4 narrower, darker sepals.  Each flower has 8 large pollen sacks (anthers), and a 4-pronged stigma (or female organ) projecting from the center.  Lower flowers bloom first while upper flowers may still be seen as thin, succulent, nodding buds.

Roots: 

Wide spreading horizontal roots (rhizomes) produce small buds to form new plants.

Seeds: 

Tiny seeds with a tuft of silky, white hairs at the tip.  Seeds are crammed in rows into narrow, green to red, pod-like capsules, 2-10 cm long.  Capsules have 4 chambers and split open lengthwise, curling when dry, to release hundreds of windborne seeds. 

Habitat preferences: 

Moist, rich to dry, rocky soils in open forests, meadows, thickets, streambanks, and riverbars at low to timberline elevations.  Also found in disturbed areas such as roadsides, avalanche paths, and recently burned and logged areas.

Interesting facts: 

Fireweed is a pioneer at establishing colonies from windborne seeds and buried rhizomes after an initial soil disturbance, such as a forest fire, clearcut, or cultivation.  Unlike other pioneer plants, it is a perennial that requires mycorrhizal (fungal) partners.  This makes it a poor long-term competitor when later successional plants emerge or when the new tree canopy grows over the fireweed colony.

Fireweed is edible and valued by white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), elk (Cervus elaphus), grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), livestock, and humans.  The young shoots can be steamed and eaten like asparagus, or pickled if harvested when they are still pink on the lower stem and the leaves are mostly closed.  The raw inner pith of stems is sweet when harvested before flowering, but yields little for the effort.  Fireweed leaves can be brewed into a tea rich in Vitamin A and C.  The tea is mildly laxative and may help settle the stomach and other irritated mucous membranes (such as sore mouth and throat, ulcers, and hemorrhoids).  The tea can also be used externally for burns and other skin irritations.  

The Blackfoot people rubbed fireweed flowers into rawhide as waterproofing and dusted a powder made from the core of the plant on their hands and face to protect them from getting chapped by the cold.  Many tribes used the outer stem fibers of fireweed to make fine cordage for fishing nets.  Coastal tribes used the silky seed fluff for padding and for weaving blankets or clothing by adding it to dog hair, goat wool, or duck feathers.  The seed fluff also makes good tinder for starting fires.

Biological Classification: