Giving rise from the ashes: Fireweed


Among the apparent defeat of blackened bark and earth after a fire, scattered seeds give rise to new growth. One perennial herb in particular has persisted for centuries in these trying conditions, with gifts for both the landscape and the people on it. Once the ash has settled and the fires are out, fireweed is likely to be one of the first plants to appear in the early stages of a disturbed landscape. 

 

 Colloquially named for its propensity to thrive in heavily disturbed soil — particularly that left by wildfires —this wild edible, Epilobium angustifolium, is a purveyor of healing in the midst of ruin.  Fireweed is beloved for its ability to grow in disturbed soils, scorched or otherwise damaged: the edges of worn roads in the country, desolate fields by industrial silos, even near old coal pits in Europe. In fact, it’s known as “bombweed” in England, where its delicate pink flowers graced a shattered London in the wake of German bombing campaigns during the Second World War.

 

As a botanical, Fireweed offers a prolific array of uses: its young leaves and shoots are purportedly delicious when blanched with butter. Bright pink blooms give color to cakes, jellies, and confections, and the flowers make fireweed a fantastic pollinating plant for orchards as well as an excellent source for honey. Not without irony, the feathery bit of fluff that encapsulates the seeds makes for great tinder for fires.

 

Although fireweed has been used by indigenous communities throughout the world for medicinal remedies, one of the most well-known uses is as an herbal tea. Fireweed is known by its more elegant moniker, rosebay willowherb, in parts of Europe and Asia. In Russia, E. angustifolium has long been dried and used as a medicinal and recreational tea, with a depth of flavor that rivaled Indian tea such that the infamous East Indian Company went to great lengths to discredit it. However, the process for creating the koporye tea (nicknamed for the region that produced it in Russia) has not been lost; it is captured by expert herbalists even today, giving us the delightful opportunity to take part in fireweed tea.

 


Photo by Crystal Nelligan

 

One such herbalist is part of Perennial Collective: Crystal Nelligan of Stir Tisanes in Smithers, British Columbia. Crystal described how fermented fireweed offers a remarkable variation of flavour profiles depending on when in the season the leaves are harvested, what the weather conditions are during that particular season, and the soil type/micro site variations at the harvest site. The fireweed she harvests varies in its aroma and complexity, depending on the length of time that the leaves are oxidized and whether or not they are toasted. Crystal processes the fireweed that she harvests for 24 to 72 hours. 

 

Her process involves several steps. First, the fireweed is wild harvested, with leaves pulled from stems on location. Blossoms and roots are left intact to ensure the sustainability of the plants. Crystal carefully sorts the fireweed leaves to check for insect damage or other blemishes. From here, the plant matter is allowed to wilt so that the leaves become more pliable, ensuring they won’t shatter in the process of kneading them.

 

In the next step, Crystal kneads the leaves until they are dark green, releasing the juices within. This assists with the fermentation process. She follows by packing the kneaded fireweed leaves tightly into containers, leaving some breathing room for the oxidation process, and covers them with a lid. The leaves need to be left in their container in a warm location out of direct sunlight for 24-72 hours, Crystal describes her process as she checks them every 6 hours, stirring periodically, “The smell will change from grassy to sweet and candy-like." Finally, the leaves are dehydrated at approximately 55 degrees Celsius to end the fermentation, and sometimes further toasted to alter the flavor. “I definitely encourage customers not to throw away their leaves after the first steep,” Crystal says. “Steep them once more for a second cup that’s reminiscent of a green tea.”

 

The herbal properties of fireweed are innumerable: in phytomedical literature, its anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties are well-renowned. Though it’s commonly used as a tonic, an expectorant and a digestive aid, even the petals of the pink fireweed flowers are antiseptic and can be wrung out onto fresh wounds or burns.

 

The curative properties of a readily available "weed" that makes its home uniquely among areas like burnt fields echoes the redwoods in its encouragement to survivors. Although it is easy to overlook or disregard in comparison to the giant sequoias, the growth of fireweed in the coastal forests and throughout the west is a symbol of hope and perseverance amongst the burn scars and ash.

 

Nature has beautiful elements of resilience in its adaptation to a changing environment. Our participation in caring for our forests, our land, and ultimately our impact on these beautiful but fragile ecosystems is something dear to the heart of who we are at Perennial Collective. The growers and wildcrafters we work with are all individuals who practice sustainable, responsible methods for gathering and farming, often with regenerative elements as an integral part of their processes. Our partners, like Crystal, spend significant time learning about their specialty crops and those that thrive in the wildlands where they are careful to collect only what the plants can offer without damaging their vitality.


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