Common Fireweed – Chamaenerion angustifolium

Alaska Wildflowers | Pink

Pink flowers of common fireweed plant blooming in Valdez, Alaska.

Common Fireweed

Chamaenerion angustifolium
or Chamerion angustifolium (see note below)

Common Names

fireweed
common fireweed
great willowherb
French-willow
British: rosebay willowherb
French: épilobe à feuilles étroites
Inuit: Inuktitut: Naparutaujuq, tiirluk
bombweed
Saint Anthony’s laurel
Yukon fireweed

Synonyms

Epilobium angustifolium L.
Epilobium angustifolium ssp. angustifolium L.
Chamaenerion angustifolium (L.) Scop.
Chamerion spicatum (Lam.) Gray
Epilobium angustifolium var. intermedium (Lange) Fernald
Epilobium spicatum Lam.
Chamerion angustifolium var. angustifolium (L.) Holub

Subspecies

C. angustifolium subsp. angustifolium
C. angustifolium subsp. circumvagum

Genus: Chamaenerion
Family: Onagraceae (Primrose)
Order: Myrtales
Full Classification

Duration – Growth Habit


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Perennial – forb/herb

Fireweed Uses

Uses section for information only (typically historical) – I take no responsibility for adverse effects from the use of any plant.

Fireweed is not poisonous and has many traditional and modern uses as food and medicine.

Young leaves and shoots are consumed as greens and are the most often consumed parts of the plant. They can either be cooked or eaten raw, often added to a salad. The flowers and leaves can be made into a tea and are popularly made into jelly (high in vitamins A and C), or consumed directly, often added to a salad. The root is not as popular for consumption as it tastes bitter (better before the plant flowers). Beekeepers often operate near fields of the flower to make fireweed honey because it is a great source of nectar.

It has been used as a dermatological aid. The leaves are used as a laxative, gastrointestinal aid, and tuberculosis remedy. The Gwich’in people boil the entire plant to be used on the skin for rashes.

Identification and Information

Fireweed is a robust perennial herb that grows from a woody caudex. It often forms numerous clones nearby by forming shoots from horizontal rhizomes up to 5 meters (16 feet) that extend from the caudex. Each stem is erect and usually unbranched, 20-200 cm (0.5-6.5 feet) tall, but can grow as high as 2.75 meters (9 feet). The leaves are arranged spirally on the stem and are attached via a small petiole up to 7 mm long. Sometimes there is no petiole present. Rarely are the leaves arranged opposite. The leaf blades are linear or lanceolate, 5-23 cm long, with an acute apex.

Notice how the lower flower (right) has a pronounced style while the anthers are reflexed, and the opposite case on the upper flower (left). This is a protective measure to prevent self-pollination (more info below).

There are two or more hairy flowering stems per plant. The inflorescence is a subglabrous raceme of 8-20 pink (or rarely white) flowers. The flowers are symmetrically spaced on a reddish stem 5-50 cm long. The flowers are nodding when in bud but erect when open. Each flower is symmetrical about the vertical axis, with the two largest (roundish) petals at the bottom, two smaller (roundish) petals at the top, and four narrow sepals behind. The calyx (sepals) are hairy and oblong-lanceolate. There are 8 stamens; the filaments are pink with red anthers are purple. The flower has one style, 8-12 mm long, and 4 curved stigmas. The flowers bloom progressively from the bottom to the top over the summer months before going to the cotton-like seed stage, producing up to 80,000 seeds per plant.

Cross-pollination is very important to the plant due to the fact that self-fertilization reduces the quality of the seeds. Bees and bumblebees that typically pollinate the plant follow a pattern of moving from the lower to the higher flowers before moving on to another plant. This is how the characteristic of the plant’s flowers opening from the bottom to the top help prevents cross-pollination. The flowers mature their pollen before the stigma is receptive. When the flower first opens, the style is sharply reflexed while the stamens are erect. After a few days, the stamens reflex and the style straighten out. This means that as insects move from the lower flowers that have already dropped their pollen to the flowers containing pollen but not yet a receptive stigma before flying to another plant, where they will land on the lower receptive flowers first, avoiding self-pollination.

Other Interesting Facts About Fireweed

Fireweed is the Provincial flower of the Yukon, adopted in 1957. It is also an emblem on the coat of arms on the flag adopted in 1968.

Yukon provin
The flag of the Yukon with fireweed on the coat of arms

C. angustifolium and C. latifolium (dwarf fireweed) are sister species that evolved in parallel. Although the two are closely related, they rarely form hybrids as they have been isolated by both ecological and genetic barriers.

I’ve heard numerous Alaskans remark that you can tell how far you are through summer by using the location of the flowers on the stem as they bloom higher up. Once the flowers reach the top of the stem, summer is over.

Distribution and Habitat

Chamanerion angustifolium is widely distributed across the northern hemisphere, including Alaska and Canada, much of the northern and western contiguous United States, Greenland, Iceland, and Eurasia. It’s most often found in mountainous regions. While uncommon, it can be found as far south as India and Bhutan.

The plant grows in many diverse habitats, from sea level to 13,000 feet in elevation. It can be found in dry gravel, scree slopes, beside streams and lakes, burnt lands, and alpine meadows. There are records of instances in the Himalayas up to 5000 m (16,000 ft).

Its common name comes from the fact that it can revegetate quickly after forest fires. This is due to having deep roots that are well-insulated beneath soil from the heat of the fires. The plant typically lives in open meadows and at the edges of forests in well-draining soil.

Fireweed that has gone to seed in September (Alaska Interior) – many of the plants still have the cottony fibers

Note on Genus and Scientific Name

There is currently disagreement on whether the genus name is Chamerion or Chamaenerion. Both the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) use the shorter name, Chamerion, while Flora of North America and many others use the name Chamaenerion. I typically use the nomenclature in ITIS for consistency in my guides, but I think it is reasonable to use the alternate (original) name Chamaenerion.

The name Chamaenerion is derived from the Greek words chamae, meaning “lowly,” and Nerium, for “Oleander.” The Latinised variant, Chamaenerium, had been adopted by a few authors but was never widely used. The species name Chamaenerium angustifolium is, therefore, a mashup of Greek and the Latin name angustifolium, meaning ‘narrow-leaved.’

Before Carl Linnaeus, “the father of modern taxonomy,” the genus was named Chamaenerion, as early as 1561. A French, self-educated polymath (person with knowledge in many subjects) named Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz coined the name Chamerion in 1833, which was simply an arbitrary shortening of Chamaenerion. The name Chamerion was first validly published by Holub in 1972.

Linnaeus named this fireweed species Epilobium angustifolia in 1753, of the willow weed genus Epilobium. It wasn’t until 1972 that the species was placed in the renamed genus Chamerion.

In 2011, Alexander Sennikov revisited this naming in 2011 with his article Chamerion or Chamaenerion (Onagraceae)? The old story in new words. In this, he describes how fireweeds are a sister group of Epilobium and, therefore, distinct from it. When Holub placed fireweed in the renamed genus, Chamerion was suggested to be a subgenus, although that was not an accepted position. Sennikov argues that the naming under Rafinesque was not acceptable under the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants rules and should be returned to the original Chamaenerion.

Long story short, depending on the source, you may see the genus name for fireweed to be Chamaenerion, Chamerion, or Epilobium. It is likely that Chamaenerion angustifolium is the correct name, but it is frequently listed under Chamerion by many floras and information systems.

Classification

RankScientific Name (Common Name)
KingdomPlantae (Plants)
SubkingdomViridiplantae (Green plants)
SuperdivisionEmbryophyta (Seed plants)
DivisionTracheophyta (Flowering plants)
ClassMagnoliopsida (Dicotyledons)
SubclassRosanae
OrderMyrtales
FamilyOnagraceae (Evening Primrose family)
GenusChamerion Raf. ex Holub (fireweed)
SpeciesC. angustifolium (L.) Holub
SubspeciesC. angustifolium (L.) Holub ssp. angustifolium
C. angustifolium subsp. circumvagum
Fireweed flowers blooming in the alpine valleys at Thompson Pass near Valdez, Alaska

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References

Guidebook

Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers, Pratt, Verna E. pg 14

Classification and Taxonomy

Chamerion angustifolium (L.) Holub Taxonomic Serial No.: 510756, ITIS Database

C. angustifolium (L.) Holub ssp. angustifolium, USDA Database

Chamerion or Chamaenerion (Onagraceae)? The old story in new words. / Sennikov, Alexander.
In: Taxon, Vol. 60, No. 5, 10.2011, p. 1485-1488.

Uses

C. angustifolium ssp. angustifolium, Native American Ehnobotany Database

Fireweed, Edible Wild Food

Distribution and Map

C. angustifolium (L.) Holub Published in: Holub. (1972). In: Folia Geobot. Phytotax. Bohem. 7: 86., GBIF Database

C. angustifolium, NatureServe Explorer

Description and Information

C. angustifolium (Linnaeus) Scopoli Fl. Carniol. ed. 2, 1: 271. 1771., Flora of North America

Fireweed, U.S. Forest Service – Plant of the Week

C. angustifolium (L.) Holub, Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago

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