Foraging – Fireweed

Fireweed (Willowherb, Blooming Sally)
Latin name: Epilobium angustifolium. Family: Onagraceae – Evening Primrose Family.

Fireweed is a beautiful plant that loves to grow just about anywhere it can find a patch of peace. This is the “fireweed” you’ll see on honey labels, and bees adore it because it makes lots of nectar. They can flower between June and September and now (in August) you’ll find it everywhere at higher elevations, like up at Cypress, and the flowers are just getting started. Although they are finishing up in the city, since they started blooming in July, you might still be able to find some if you’re quick. Fireweed can be found along trails in parks, at the beach, along roadsides at UBC and in untended gardens. The first batch I picked was in a wild front garden in Kitsilano and the second was at the cross-country parking area on Hollyburn.

Its common name, fireweed, can be attributed to its appearance on fire-scorched landscapes like Mt. Saint Helens after the eruption. Interestingly, it has a reputation in Europe and amongst many native groups in North America as a soothing treatment for burned or irritated skin – so it heals burns on the earth and on our bodies.

Researchers in Poland have investigated its use as a folk medicine in Europe for urinary and prostate diseases and found that compounds in the plant have an inhibitory activity against a series of metallopeptidases which play a role in causing prostate disease. I would suggest a tea from a few young leaves or flowers as a urinary and prostate tonic.

Fireweed is an excellent survival plant as most of its parts are edible and it’s a good source of beta-carotene and vitamin C. The Yupik Eskimos stored it in seal fat for a vital year-round source of vitamin C. When the young shoots are peeled they can be eaten raw or cooked like asparagus. The core of the older stalks is edible, sweet and highly mucilaginous which makes it an effective anti-inflammatory for internal and external use. The young leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked or steeped for use as a tonic tea for upset stomach. The flowers and buds are edible and the roots can be eaten raw or cooked. The peeled outer layer from the stalks can be dried, then soaked in water and twisted into twine which the Haida would use to make fishing nets. The fluff from the seed pods can be used as tinder for fires and was used by native groups in Coastal BC as stuffing for mattresses and blankets or spun with other materials for weaving.

It’s one seriously useful plant! I love that the most useful plants are the ones that are so determined to stick around and be our companions that we call them weeds. That’s loyalty for you.

I found this recipe for fireweed jelly on a message board and gave it a try a couple of months ago. It has a delightful light floral taste and the most magnificent colour! I just picked another big batch at Hollyburn to make more jelly for gifts. You just need flowers and buds for the jelly, so just pick the tops of the fireweed stalks which will leave the plants and their seed pods behind to mature.

Fireweed Jelly Recipe

Makes 3 1/2 cups of jelly.

  • 2 cups firmly-packed fireweed flowers and buds
  • 2 1/2 cups of boiling water
  • 3 cups of sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of lemon juice
  • 3 Tablespoons of powdered pectin,
  • 1/2 teaspoon of butter or margarine
  • some cheesecloth

This jelly is really easy to make!

Separate the flowers from the stalks outdoors so you can shake off any critters that came home with them. Discard any brown flowers (I keep the wilted ones that still have colour) and give each stalk a shake to give the bugs a chance to escape. I don’t wash the flowers, but if you choose to, I suggest that you gently rinse them in a bowl of water since some of the flowers will drop off. Strip the flowers and buds from the stalks (a few seed pods is fine), by running the stalk through your fingers, and place in a measuring cup. You’ll want 2 cups of firmly packed fireweed flowers and buds. My first batch wasn’t quite 2 cups when firmly packed and it was still lovely, so don’t panic if what you collected seems a tad short. The important thing is to use them while they’re fresh.

Bring 2 1/2 cups of water to a rapid boil and pour it over the 2 cups of firmly packed flowers and buds. Let it cool down, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 24 hours (up to 72 hours). Strain the liquid through two layers of cheesecloth in a colander and then pull the corners of the cloth up and twist to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. I like to get all the goodness out! My jelly was still nice and clear.

If the water is just a pale violet, don’t despair – you will be pleasantly surprised when you make the jelly! The colour intensifies when you add the lemon (acid) and then again when you add the pectin, resulting in a truly stunning finished product. The more firmly packed the flowers are, the darker the colour and the more distinct the flavour.

When you’re ready to make the jelly, combine the liquid with 1 teaspoon of lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of powdered pectin, and 1/2 teaspoon of butter or margarine. Bring to a full rolling boil and boil hard for 1 minute. Add 3 cups of sugar and boil hard for another minute, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat, scrape off any foam and then pour the hot jelly into hot sterile jars and process with snap lids in boiling water for 5 minutes (this is the water-bath canning method).Not everyone processes their jelly, so if you don’t have any canning equipment you can pour the hot jelly into hot sterile jars (to sterilize leave in boiling water for 10 minutes) and seal them up with sterile lids and call it a day. I would recommend that you keep the jars in the fridge, though. I like to know I can safely store my preserves long-term, so I prefer the reassurance that processing gives me. Discovering a jar of something yummy a couple of years later and tasting flavour as fresh as the day it was made is some kind of homesteader magic!

If you would like to learn more about canning, check out Bernardin’s website for a good introduction to canning and check out the Homesteader’s Emporium website for supplies and local workshops.

Fireweed jelly is delicious with cheese! Try it with brie or goat cheese.