Fireweed in
   the back yard in Chicago.
Fireweed
This is some fireweed in my back yard in Chicago.


Introduction

Fireweed is an exceptionally colorful plant, its native from the sub-Arctic down the Rocky Mountains across the upper Midwest and down the Appalachians to Georgia. Many people are inspired to try and grow fireweed after they see it in Alaska. It is sometimes called giant showy willow herb.

I got my seeds while in Alaska from Seeds of Alaska. The packet for 1995 read:

Fireweed is the most colorful wildflower to be seen in Alaska. It takes over recent clearings, burned areas and along roadsides. It is a tall plant, up to 8 feet, with long terminal spike-like clusters of red blossoms. The tender new shoots from older roots are edible. They are eaten raw, cooked, or in the Eskimo matter, soaked in seal oil. The Eskimo name Pahmeyuktuk, describes the edible shoot. Plant with a thin soil cover and keep moist until the tender young plants are well started. Fireweed seed does not germinate well at high temperatures. Fireweed is a perennial and begins blooming the second season.


How to Grow Fireweed

Fireweed forms cottony seeds (like cottonwood seeds only smaller and lighter) in thin seed pods that are spread by the wind. So far I have not seen any plants that have come up from seed however I've been harvesting seeds before too many blow around. Moreover starting seeds has been kind of iffy, it seems to me they need a great deal of care to get going.

I managed to start some plants from seed even during fairly hot weather by filling a pot with dirt, sprinkling the seeds on top and coating with very fine dusty soil. Then water from the bottom and/or spray with a fine mist. Do keep the pot out of the hot sun and make sure the pot is cooler at night. Once I tried starting them in a cool basement with a fairly constant temperature and this did not work. A couple of times I tried starting the seeds by placing them in the ground and this did not work. I also managed to start them by putting some in Park's Starts (rubbery peat-like cylinders) on a windowsill in late Winter. Also do not attempt to plant plants you do manage to start in hot conditions, I did this and very few (or none? I forget) managed to survive.

Fireweed is in the Evening Primrose family meaning that it can spread rapidly. My first experience with fireweed led me to think it would soon be all over the place however it is not nearly as aggressive as some other members of the family (like showy primrose, Oenothera speciosa, one heck of a spreader that has been in many seed catalogs in recent years). It forms a limited number of shoots in the spring and if you pluck them out you will not get new sprouts all over the place. If you dig up a sprout in the Spring it will only grow slowly that season and not bloom until new sprouts come up the following year. It also has does not compete well against other perennials like Helenium, New England Aster and Bee Balm so in a wild setting it will not take over as far as I can tell. Also deer and elk are supposed to like the plant and they would control it in the wild.


Dwarf Fireweed, Epilobium alpinum

Dwarf Fireweed
Dwarf fireweed, Epilobium alpinum, grows about 6 inches high, here is a plant near the port in Skagway, Alaska.


Sources

Fireweed plants are available from:

Gardens of the Blue Ridge in North Carolina.

Seeds are available from:

Ion Exchange in Iowa

Fireweed Herb Garden and Gifts in Kenai, Alaska.

As of 1995 you could get seeds from:

Seeds of Alaska
Box 3127
Kenai, Alaska

My packets were bought in 1995 at Chilkoot Gardens in Haines, Alaska and some store in downtown Juneau. These seed packets were not easy to find in stores, most did not have have them. I believe Seeds of Alaska also sells dwarf fireweed. A guy in Alaska tells me fireweed seeds are available at Wal-Marts in Alaska. A 1995 catalog from:

J. L. Hudson
Star Route 2
Box 337
La Honda, California, 94020 USA

catalog requests to:

J. L. Hudson
P.O. Box 1058
Redwood City, CA 94064, USA

lists fireweed and dwarf fireweed seeds. An old catalog (1980s) from:

McLaughlin's Seeds
Buttercup's Acre
Mead, WA 99021-0550, USA

also lists fireweed seeds. Since I collect the seeds from my plants I can probably send you some as well.


Recipes

If the fireweed in seal oil does not appeal to you here is one for Alaska honey someone gave me in an email, it is also found at http://www.cookbooks.com (search on fireweed):

ALASKA HONEY
  • 10c.sugar(5lb.)
  • 1 tsp. alum
  • 21/2c.water
  • 48 clover blossoms
  • 18 fireweed blossoms or rose petals
  • 5pt. jars
Boil sugar, alum and water for 8 minutes. Remove from stove; add blossoms. Leave for 20 minutes, then strain through cheesecloth. Fill jars. Makes 5 pints.


Other Online Information

The Time Life Plant Encyclopedia has a page on Fireweed


Fireweed Photo Gallery


Music and Poetry

Once upon a time I wrote here:
If MacDowell can do a nice piece for a wild rose then certainly someone must have done or soon will do a piece of music for fireweed, at least a sonata if not a concerto, when you find it let me know. Likewise there must be some poetry on fireweed somewhere, if you find it let me know or write your own so I can post it here.
Now it just so happens I forgot all about that request but then I recently received this poem:
FIREWEED

Fire, furious, fast flames, famine land

Insistent plant, intricate details, inspiring life, increasing itself,

Replenishing the scorched earth, refuge for animals, regenerating the ecosystem

Edible, enchanting, exuberant, elaborate

Willow leaves, wondrous flowers, wafting in the end, willful weed.

Enumerable seeds and flowers, emanating fragrance and beauty.

Established on the earth, beaming red as embers, embedded in the soil, exalted by others, exhaling oxygen, expanding its borders.

Delicious honey, delicate flowers, dignity as it stands, dominating the countryside, developing in dry climates and areas of disturbance, released seeds, rapid dispersal, dazzling performance.

-Elizabeth K. (a college student).

In addition to this poem a few months before I received a link to a video of the song "Fireweed Mountain":

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=htvUQ28eZUs.

The song is found on this album: http://sethmartinandthemenders.bandcamp.com/track/fireweed-mountain


Impostors

A couple of other plants are also called fireweed, in one listing from Australia they list a plant in the Senecio genus as being called fireweed and note that it is poisonous. The plant Erechtites hieracifolia is also called fireweed and it is also called pilewort. It has unremarkable brush-like white flowers.

If you have any questions or comments, write me.

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