For many Septembers, my husband and I have traveled to Canada for duck and grouse hunting. The drive is twelve hours long and when it’s not my turn to drive, I usually have my eyes turned to the roadside ditches to see what’s growing there. (There really isn’t much else to look at in northern Minnesota.) Anyway . . . every year I see these pinkish-reddish plants with what looks like cotton fluff at their tops. Year after year, same thing, but we’re always in a hurry to get to our destination and never want to take the time to slow down and get a good look at the plants.
Finally, late last August while enroute to a short vacation in the U.P. (where there is also not much to look at) I spotted some of the same plants alongside the road. We finally had the time to stop and get a good look at them. After years of wondering, I was finally able to identify the plant as fireweed.
Fireweed boasts spiked clusters of rose-pink flowers on erect reddish stems from July through September, blooming from the bottom up. It grows 2-6 feet tall and is found in large patches on roadsides, and in moist forests and clearings in sunny or partly shady spots. It is well-known for being the first plant to cover the ground after a fire. After Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, fireweed was first to appear.
It has pretty willow-like leaves that are dark green above and silvery below. Their unique feature is that instead of the veins going outward from the mid-vein to the edge of the stem, they are circular and loop back to the middle. The flowers each have four rounded petals, and the buds hang downward. Later, long spiky seed pods form and they are angled upward. Eventually the seed capsules burst open. Each seed has a tuft of hair – the “cotton” I was noticing – that carries it on the wind like milkweed fluff. One plant can produce up to 80,000 seeds! The seeds are so abundant and easily collected that they can be used as fire starters or for stuffing pillows. Fortunately, the seedbank isn’t long-lived or we’d have an invasive plant on our hands. You can see though, how it could densely cover the ground after a fire when there is no competition from other plants.
My field guide says that fireweed is native to areas from the sub-arctic to Iowa, Indiana, northern Ohio and through the mountains to Georgia. That should cover all of Wisconsin, but I haven’t seen it in in our state except for the northern counties. Doesn’t mean it’s not further south somewhere though, just that I haven’t seen it. That same field guide says that fireweed is endangered in parts of the Midwest, although I don’t find it on the DNR’s list of Wisconsin’s endangered plants.
The flowers, leaves, stalk and seeds of fireweed are edible. The leaves and stalk are best consumed young when they are tender and have a slight sweet and citrusy taste. The taste of the flowers has been described as both sweet and peppery. The seeds have a peppery taste. The flavors of all the plant parts vary depending on the soil the plant is growing in, so if you don’t like it on the first go round, try it again from some other location.
Young shoots of fireweed can be eaten raw or steamed or sautéed like asparagus. Harvest them when the leaves are still close to the stem and pointing upward. Just like asparagus, snap the stem off at the base. The shoots have a slightly more slippery mouth-feel than asparagus. This is due to mucilage which is soothing to both the mouth and the entire digestive system.
When stems are older, they can be peeled and eaten raw. They can also be split lengthwise to expose a sweet pith running up the center of the stem. Scoop it out for a sweet treat or use it as a thickener in cooking and baking.
Flower buds and young leaves are eaten raw. Both can be a nice addition to salads. You can quickly gather quantities of leaves by holding the plant below the flower and running your other hand down the stem. This keeps the flower in place for pollinators to enjoy and allows it to produce seed. Older leaves along with flowers, can be cooked in stews and soups to both add flavor and as a thickener.
CAUTION: Make certain you have correctly identified any wild plant before you consume it. Start with small quantities to make sure the plant agrees with you. Large amounts of fireweed may have a laxative effect.
VITAMINS! Fireweed is a source of vitamins A and C, beta-carotene and flavonoids.
Gather leaves before the plants flower. Place a handful of leaves in a teapot and steep 5-10 minutes. For a single cup of tea, use a small handful of fresh leaves or a scant tablespoon of dried leaves. This makes a light green tea with a sweet taste. Extra leaves can be dried in baskets or paper bags or spread on newspaper so you can enjoy the tea year-round. Store dried leaves in glass jars or plastic zip bags.
FIREWEED CAMP CHILI
2 cans of chili, kidney, black or other beans
1 can diced tomatoes
2 cloves garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
2 handfuls of chopped fireweed leaves, flowers and flower buds
Add everything to pot and cook over a campfire or on a camp stove.
FIREWEED STRAWBERRY IINFUSED VODKA
Fill a mason jar with fireweed blossoms and strawberries. Cover with vodka. Gently shake the jar a few times a day for 3-5 days, storing it in a dark place in-between. The vodka will extract the flavor and color from the fruit and blossoms. Strain and discard the blossoms and strawberries.
Using your favorite cupcake recipe, bring milk or cream to just below a boil. Add 1 ½ cups fireweed petals. Chill overnight in refrigerator. Strain the milk and use in your recipe as directed. Blend fresh blossom pieces into whatever frosting you choose and/or garnish with fresh blooms.
Using your favorite fresh pasta recipe, blend in chopped fireweed blossoms when you are kneading the dough.
Place two cups fresh fireweed blossoms in a mason jar. Cover with rice vinegar or white wine vinegar. Place jar in a dark place for two weeks. Strain out blossoms and use the vinegar on salads or as a dipping sauce for bread.
FIREWEED ICE CUBES
Fill an ice cube tray with water. Place 2-3 blossoms in each cube. Freeze. Use the cubes to pretty up glasses of iced tea or lemonade.