Other names: Great Willowherb
General: perennial from widespread rhizome-like roots that
form new shoots freely. Stems usually simple, 1-3 m tall,
hairless except for fine hairs in the flower cluster and,
especially, on the ovaries. Often in large colonies.
Leaves: alternate, narrowly lanceolate, almost stalkless,
5-20 cm long and 0.5-3.5 cm wide, slightly paler and veiny
beneath, numerous on stem.
Flowers: rose to purple, rarely white, with 4 petals 8-20
mm long. Numerous flowers in terminal, greatly elongate
clusters, lower flowers blooming first. Sepals 8-12 mm long.
Style 1-2 cm long, longer than the 8 stamens, softly long-
hairy on the lower portion, stigma 4-cleft.
Flowering time: June-September.
Fruits: erect, linear pods, 4-8 cm long, green to reddish,
splitting lengthwise to release 100's of seeds, each tipped
with a fluffy, dirty-whitish hair tuft.
Common well up into the mountains, especially along
highways and railroads and on old burns, in all parts of MT
except the extreme se. parts. Also in the rest of the U.S.
Edible and Medicinal plant: see below.
(click on image for full size)
| Edible Uses:
Leaves and young shoot tips of fireweed are edible, raw or cooked. Early season shoots are considered
to be delicacy by some, and are harvested late spring or early in the summer. Shoots and young stems are
peeled and can be eaten raw or steamed as a substitute for asparagus. When properly prepared soon after
picking they are a good source of vitamin C and pro-vitamin A. Yupik eskimos preserved the stems in seal
oil in order to have them year-round, and their name for Fireweed, Pahmeyuktuk, referred to its edibility.
The peelings of the stems were not wasted as they were dried and used to weave strong twine for fishing
Very young leaves are also edible in salads
or in soups or steeped for use as a tonic tea for upset stomach. The leaves should only be used when they
are young, and with moderation. Infusions of leaves have been known to cause nausea. Mature leaves become
tough and bitter, but by then the unopened flowerbuds are tasty for salads or in stir-fries. A syrup was
traditionally extracted from the stems and flowers, having a high mucilage content that made it useful
among native peoples in preparing berry-cakes that dry solidly. Today the flowers are harvested to make
Fireweed Jelly, available from small cottage-industry canning companies. Pioneer Alaskans used the sweet
pith in the manufacture of ales and vinegars. The root can be eaten raw, cooked or dried and ground into
a powder. Used in spring, it has a sweet taste.
Although sometimes considered a weed, it has a long history of use as a medicinal plant. The herb is antispasmodic,
hypnotic, laxative and tonic, and has agents that cause tissue to contract, and that soften and soothe
the skin when applied locally. Historically, medicinal use includes oral use of the plant extracts, often
in the form of an infusion or tea, as a treatment for prostate and urinary problems including benign prostatic
hyperplasia or enlarged prostate, and for various gastrointestinal disorders such as dysentery or diarrhea.
Topically the plant has been used traditionally as a soothing, cleansing and healing agent to treat minor
burns, skin rashes, ulcers, and numerous other skin irritations and afflictions.
Chemically, the plant contains an abundance of phenolic compounds, tannins and flavonoids, many of which
appear to have biological activity. Fireweed is also a medicine of the Upper Inlet Denalina, 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. The Blackfoot
Indians used the powdered inner cortex rubbed on the hands and face to protect them from the cold during
the winter. They also made a tea of roots and inner cortex given to babies as an enema for constipation.
A fiber obtained from the outer stems can be used to make cordage. The 'cottony' seed hairs has been used
as a stuffing material or as tinder.
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