Dwarf Fireweed - Chamaenerion latifolium
|Dwarf fireweed, Chamaenerion latifolium.|
Most of the species in this mid-sized family are herbaceous – their stems are soft and green and the simple leaves grow from the stem in opposite, alternate, or spiralling arrangements. When in bloom, the flowers are often showy, possessing four petals and four darker, narrow sepals that are arranged alternately on the flower head. Only one genus, the willow-herbs, Epilobium, occurs in the Arctic. The most common plants in this family are herbaceous – their stems are soft and green, not woody.
General Information and Anatomy
Fireweed, Chamaenerion angustifolium, is the official flower of the Yukon. Its tall spikes, often reaching a metre in height, bear flowers all along the stalk, each with its characteristic purple-pink petals and darker, slender sepals. The common name, fireweed, is derived from the habitat preference of this plant – fireweed is an early colonizer of disturbed land, and thrives in recently burned areas. A unique feature of this plant is the bottom-up blooming pattern of its flowers – flowers on the bottom bloom first, then the next flower up, and so on. As would be expected, the lower flowers mature and die before the flowers higher on the stem. This adaptation is employed by the fireweed to prevent self-fertilization and has evolved to parallel the bottom-to-top feeding pattern of their major pollinator, bumblebees.
River beauty, or dwarf fireweed, Chamaenerion latifolium, is an equally spectacular plant, with a distinct pattern of alternating dark red sepals and bright pink petals. River beauty is "dwarf"; it has a shorter stature than fireweed, but has larger and paler flowers. Its smooth, waxy leaves are bluish-green in colour. River beauty is also a "pioneer" species, being the first to sprout where bare, disturbed ground has had little time to establish a cover of vegetation.
As a side note, both fireweed species were recently moved into their own, separate genus, Chamerion, within the evening primrose family. Previously, these species belonged to the Epilobium genus, and are sometimes referred to as such.
Blooming earlier this year and already starting to fade in some areas, it is usually seen a little later in the summer.
Fireweed grows in abundance in waste places in the North. Backyards, ditches, and roadsides in Yellowknife are ablaze with its magenta blooms every summer. The Ingraham Trail is lined with fireweed for many miles. Growing up to six feet high, fireweed can be recognized by its long stalk of showy, bright pink flowers that bloom from the bottom of the stalk up. Leaves are long and narrow, like willow leaves, and are arranged alternately on the stem. The long, reddish-tinted ovary is conspicuous, as is the drooping four-lobed white stigma. The ovaries release “fluff” when ripe, which floats through the air to deposit seeds far and wide. Fireweed gets its name from its habit of being one of the first plants to grow in a burned-out area.
All parts of the fireweed are edible. The leaves can be dried and used to make tea; the young shoots can be cooked and used in a salad. Fireweed honey is fragrant and dark-amber in colour; it is highly prized.
Medicinal uses include infusions to use as a spring tonic or to settle upset stomach. Fireweed tea can be used to relieve constipation. The dry, powdered roots can be mixed with petroleum jelly to soothe infected insect bites and skin abrasions.