May 19, 2010
Europe and North America have only a few wild plants in common. This means that for the most part our plant lore and traditional foraging experiences are very different. A few familiar species have been introduced into America by European immigrants, some deliberately, such as Watercress (Nasturtium officinalis) and others by accident; for example Greater Plantain (Plantago major), which became known to the indigenous people as ‘White Man’s Footsteps’ or White-man’s Foot’ because of the way it sprang up in his wake. Either way they were quickly assimilated into Native American culture, and their culinary and medicinal potential thoroughly utilised.
Fireweed, also known as Rosebay Willowherb (Chamaenerion [Epilobium] angustifolium) however, is hemisphere -spanning herb that is native to both sides of the Atlantic, with a long history of uses in many cultures. It is a pioneer species with wide powers of dispersal and is particularly adapted to colonising ground that has been burnt. It became a familiar sight on ‘bombsites’ in London in the first couple of decades after the Second World War and it was one of the most abundant early settlers to the area devastated by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state in 1980.
From a forager’s perspective it is often plentiful where it grows and is versatile in its edibility. The spring shoots have been consumed in this country for hundreds of years. The tender top 6-8 inches (15-20cm) are snapped off, stripped of most of their leaves except a small tuft at the tip and the stems peeled. They may be eaten raw, or cooked, by boiling, steaming or frying first in butter then steaming in the same pan like spinach. They are especially delicious when added to an omelette.
Now is the time to harvest, so go seek a patch and watch it through the summer.
Apart from some medicinal uses, there ends our native knowledge, it seems. To use this wonderful resource to its fullest potential however we must look to tribes far and wide.
Indigenous Canadians also ate the young shoots. Yupik Eskimos preserved the stems in seal oil to prolong their viability. In addition the Blackfeet ate the fresh roots in spring. The gelatinous pith of both younger and older stems is sweet and prized as food by many northern tribes. It was consumed after splitting the stem open with a fingernail. The people of Kamchatka add the sweet inner tissue to ale that they brew and also use it in vinegar. As Fireweed began to bloom in summer Fisherman Lake Slave People ate the raw flowers and present day Alaskans make Fireweed Jelly from them. Now why don’t we?
Russians make a tea known as Kaporie from the dried leaves, though this, if attempted, should be drunk in moderation as various sources report that it causes drunkenness, nausea or stupefaction! Later in the year the down from willowherb seeds can be used as tinder, though in the past they also have been woven into a delicate fabric with other materials. In autumn the dry stems produce a fibre that can be used as cordage. Fireweed truly is ‘a plant for all seasons’.