Fireweed – Epilobium Angustifolium: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Fire-friend of Wild Plants

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In Chippewa, oja’cidji’bik meaning “slippery root”, fireweed (epilobium angustifolium) derives its common name from colonizing the charred sites of wildfires. It’s an edible and medicinal plant that is native to Ontario.

Fireweed (epilobium angustifolium syn. chamerion angustifolium syn. chamaenerion angustifolium) is common along roadsides, in logged bush, and in fire scourged acres here in central Ontario. It gets its name from thriving after forest fires. Some forest fires are natural and necessary for certain plants and wildlife to thrive, like the mottled duskywing butterfly featured in a recent Wood Folk Diary. (Not to be confused with the widespread, drought induced, climate change sort of massive forest fires we’re seeing annually.)

Fireweed could be confused with the invasive purple loosestrife, which you may see on roadsides and more commonly on shores of wetlands. Fireweed is much bigger than most other local willowherbs; however, the flowers look similar to the nonnative hairy fireweed (epilobium hirsutum). There are other plants called fireweed too.

Fireweed - Epilobium Angustifolium
Fireweed – Epilobium Angustifolium

Edible Uses of Fireweed

The very young leaves and shoots can be eaten raw or cooked. As per usual, they become tough and bitter with age. The edible young flower stalks are asparagus-like. They are best lightly sautéed or steamed.

You can peel old stems and eat the pith. This pith can also be used to thicken stews. And the pith can be dried and boiled, then fermented to make fireweed ale.

Both the clusters of flower buds and the bloomed flowers are edible. In the Yukon, the flowers are traditionally made into a jelly.

For tea, the leaves are harvested around flowering time. The tea is good with honey, perhaps fireweed honey? You can dry the leaves for tea and keep them fresh in a jar, out of sunlight, for about a year.

The scraped or peeled root can be roasted, but is bitter tasting. There is a brown “thread” in the middle that can be removed to reduce the bitterness.

Medicinal Uses of Fireweed

Fireweed is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive
  • Integumentary
  • Reproductive
  • Respiratory

Medicinal tags include Anti-inflammatory, Antimicrobial, Astringent and Mucilage. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes astringent and mucilaginous uses for skin. It makes a soothing skin wash or poultice. Due to the same slippery mucilage properties it is used for soothing digestive support for conditions like irritable bowel syndrome.

It may also have use for prostate support, especially for benign prostatic hyperplasia.

Alternative Uses of Great Willowherb

Fibres from the stem can be used for cordage and netting.

The fresh flowers have an oily coating that can be rubbed into rawhide or leather for waterproofing.

The seed fluff can be used for tinder or padding.

Fireweed - Epilobium Angustifolium
Fireweed – Epilobium Angustifolium

Growing Epilobium Angustifolium

Fireweed is easy to start from seed or divisions. It’s a tough plant and rapid spreader, so if you don’t want a large swath of it a container is recommended.

The flowers are visited by many insects including bumblebees. The caterpillars of various hawk and sphinx moths, amoung others, use it as a host plant. Around Haliburton, it’s a primary host plant for bedstraw hawk moth (hyles gallii) and white-lined sphinx moth (hyles lineata).


And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants for Canadian Gardens

Reader’s Digest Magic and Medicine of Plants

The Earthwise Herbal, Volume II: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants

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