Comprehensive Description

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Comprehensive Description

Fireweed, or Chamerion angustifolium (also known as Epilobium angustifolium) is a perennial angiosperm in the evening primrose (Onagraceae) family.  The reddish, usually unbranched stalks of this tall, herbaceous wildflower range in height from 1 to 3 m, with spear-shaped leaves approximately 10 to15 cm long (Giblin and Knoke 2016). The smooth green leaves grow in an alternate arrangement with a white central vein present on most and a unique circular pattern of smaller veins that do not terminate at the edge of the leaf (Vizgirdas 2016).  The flowers of this dicot consist of four bright pink or magenta petals from 8 to 20 mm long, with up to fifty on a single stalk, and four sepals of 8 to 12 mm.  Reproductive organs at the center of these flowers include a prominent, four lobed stigma and 8 stamens with white filaments and large reddish anthers (Giblin & Knoke 2016).

C. angustifolium is native throughout Canada and most of the United States except for Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, and the southeastern states, although it is found in a few locations in northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.  In Indiana, Ohio, and North Carolina fireweed is classified as a Threatened or Endangered species, and in Tennessee it is a Species of Concern (Fleenor 2016; USDA 2016).  It grows mainly in forest and alpine meadows, in semi-shaded mixed forests and forest edges, and along rivers and streams.  And although this versatile plant can grow almost anywhere, it thrives in moist, well-drained soils. Its primary association is as an active colonizer of recently burned areas, behavior that has earned fireweed its name (Fleenor 2016; Vizgirdas 2016).

Fireweed grows on a perennial life cycle, blooming each year from June until September.  It spreads mainly by its dispersal of seeds from bursting pods, but also through it wide-spreading roots, once they become established in an area (Shebitz 2003).  The pods each contain around 350 seeds, which can total up to 80,000 seeds per plant per year (Vizgirdas 2016).  Fireweed seeds are very distinct, as they have tufts of silk-like white hairs sprouting from them, which enable them to be picked up easily and spread by the wind.  Due to its ability to spread and repopulate so quickly over large areas, fireweed has become an invasive pest in some locations (Fleenor 2016).

Many traditional cultures around the world have used fireweed for a variety of purposes.  The stalks are often eaten, yielding high volumes of vitamins A and C, and the silky fibers growing from the seeds have been used for waving and padding by Native Americans.  The leaves have long been used for teas and the abundant nectar from the flowers is often used to make honey, jellies, and syrup, especially in Alaska, due to the abundance of C. angustifolium in the area (Pojar and MacKinnon 2004; Vizgirdas 2016).


Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY 3.0)

© Authors: Katie Czinski and Christian Franco; Editor: Gordon L. Miller, Ph.D.; Seattle University EVST 2100—Natural History: Theory and Practice

Supplier: seattleu_natural_history

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