Epilobium angustifolinm – Fireweed

FireweedEpilobium angustifolium

Epilobium = e-pi-lo-bee-um, from Greek epi (upon) and lobos (a pod), Gerner’s name indicating the positioning of the corolla on top of the ovary;

angustifolium = L. “narrow-leaved”;

Identification: This very common perennial herb has an erect stem that stands up to 150 cm tall. It has rose-purple flowers in an elongated raceme. The stems are leafy and the leaves being alternate, lanceolate, dark green above and paler and veined beneath. The seeds are in long silk-filled seed pods.

Distribution & Habitat: Fireweed is a very common fire successional plant colonizing any disturbed ground. It is found along roads, open woods and in recently burned-over areas. It is often in competition with Arnica spp.

An Indian Legend:

A young Indian maiden once set fire to the far end of an enemy’s camp to cause a diversion to rescue her lover from torture. She untied him and fled with the enemy giving chase. The Great Spirit took pity on her. Wherever her moccasins touched the ground, great flames shot up. This soon turned her pursuers back. Eventually, the flames turned into brilliant fireweed flowers.

Preparation & Uses: The young leaves of fireweed make good greens in salads and can also be cooked. The whole of the young plant can be cooked like asparagus before it gets woody and I find it quite tasty. The more mature fireweed can be eaten if the outer pith is taken off, exposing a sweet glutinous substance. I find it hard to peel with disappointingly little inside. The petiole of the flower can be eaten and the flower buds and full flower add glamour and taste to a salad. The mature leaves can be used as a tea. The silky hair on the seed pod makes excellent tinder for fires. Fireweed has a very good survival food value because of a relatively high content of Beta-carotene and Vitamin C.

Some Europeans used the fireweed as an intestinal astringent in the form of a tea and as an antispasmodic, demulcent and emmenagogue. It is also said to have good effects on diseased mucous membranes, colon troubles, cholera and dysentery – it at least relieves the pain from these diseases. It is felt, by the Indians, that its veins carry an antiseptic which they use for healing sores and ulcers. They also use this herb for healing burns, which is interesting because it heals the burns of the earth too — the source of its common name. A poultice or ointment made of the roots can be used on skin inflammation, boils, ulcers and rashes.

Blackfoot Indians used an infusion of the root and inner cortex as an enema for children, to help them eliminate. .The flowers were rubbed into rawhide as a waterproofing. The powdered inner cortex was put on the hands and face to protect them from the cold. I have tried this while working outdoors on cross country skis and found it very effective. The powder was used so that the hands would not be hurt when being warmed up again.