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Fireweed Ecology & Herbal Uses

Fireweed is the queen of the clearcut. It’s the king of the forest fire. This plant is one of the most widespread in the Northern hemisphere, and one of the first to show up in any disturbed area. As if by magic, fireweed takes over, helping to green these areas again and stabilize the soil.

It grows in patches, reproducing by rhizomes and its fluffy airborne seeds. I’ve found fireweed in a sub-alpine meadow, in gardens, backyards, and city parks. It’s a ubiquitous herb in northern climates, which by the way includes all of Canada and much of the U.S.

A little story for you: when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, fireweed began to grow through the ash only a month later. It reproduced throughout much of the mountainside in the years following, where few other plants were growing. After the second world war, fireweed was known to some in the U.K. as ‘bombweed’ because of how quickly it would grow in bomb craters. Whenever I learn things like this about a plant, I think: this is gonna be one of the plants that saves us.

The time to harvest fireweed, otherwise known in Latin as Epilobium angustifolium or Chamaenerion angustifolium, is now (or, if you're reading this later, in the Pacific Northwest around sea level the time is usually July - higher it will be later).

This beautiful plant starts out as greens in the spring, which by the way are edible and delicious. Epilobium then shoots up between three and nine feet tall, with a stem surrounded by long narrow green leaves, and topped with bright pink-purple flowers. The flowers start opening at the base of the flower head, then move upward, leaving seed pods behind where they’ve already blossomed. Later on in the summer these seed pods burst to reveal a mass of gorgeous (and useful!) white fluff, pictured here.

Epilobium’s stems can also be used to make cordage, which is a technical term for string or rope.

I think of fireweed primarily as a tea plant. The tea is made of the leaves and flowers, and tastes mild and delicious. The tea works as a blood sugar ally, helping to lower sugar cravings. It’s also high in minerals, and vitamins A & C.

My teacher taught me it’s a great antifungal, and as such useful for candida. It’s a great tea to drink if you’re taking antibiotics and want to prevent a yeast infection – you can drink it during the course of the medication, and for a week afterwards. Be aware that fireweed tea can be a mild laxative. This is, in fact, one of its uses.

It’s also anti-inflammatory: you can use the tea topically on irritated skin, eczema and psoriasis, and injured tissue. You could also make a poultice for these purposes. Since fireweed is a gentle remedy, it can be used this way for infants and children too.

Internally for inflammation, the tea can be drunk to help soothe the mouth, throat or stomach. It’s a very safe plant that can be used alongside any pharmaceuticals without risk.

To harvest fireweed, cut its stalk near the base and hang the whole plant to dry. Once it’s dry, strip the leaves and flowers off to save for tea. If you want to use the stalk to make cordage, save that too. A description of how to do so is, sadly however, outside the scope of this article.

To prepare fireweed tea pour recently-boiled water over the plant, and let it steep for 20-30 minutes.

Fireweed is one of the most ethical plants to harvest simply because there is so much of it. Be aware not to deplete an area though. If the stand is small, don’t take much.

I encourage you to explore and learn more about this useful and abundant plant.

This blog was originally published on Tea Leaves. - the blog of the Perennial Collective, a North America-wide network of wildcrafters and medicine makers.

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