Why I Welcome Fireweed on My Property

Commonly viewed as a challenge, fireweed has some surprising benefits.

fireweed closeup

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Fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium, is a common weed. It also known as rosebay willowherb or bombweed in the United Kingdom, and as great willowherb in some parts of Canada. It dominates parts of my property and nearby roadsides and hedgerow borders in my area at this time of the year.

The seeds disperse readily on the wind and the plants are great colonizers. The name fireweed comes from the plant's propensity to recolonize areas after wildfires, and bombweed was a name the plant received after growing on bomb sites in London and elsewhere during the Blitz. 

This plant could be considered a challenging weed. But there are a number of reasons why I do not see this plant as a problem, and why I welcome this "weed"—or wildflower—on my property. 

Fireweed Is a Useful Pioneer Plant

Fireweed is often one of the first plants to return to areas which have been damaged or disturbed. This means that it can be useful in the repair of ecosystems and in land management. It quickly revegetates disturbed soil, establishing roots and ground cover to prevent soil degradation and erosion. It can speed up recovery, prevent further damage, and yet is easily outcompeted by trees and shrubs as these start to grow.

I myself have seen fireweed start to diminish in my forest garden as other plants grow and shade cover increases. But I still welcome these wildflowers where they appear occasionally in sunny glades and brighter areas between the trees, shrubs, and other plants, blowing in on the wind from nearby field boundaries and roadsides. 

Fireweed Is Great for Wildlife

In all areas where it grows, this plant is hugely beneficial for local wildlife. It helps a wide range of pollinators, and is a host plant for a range of different species of lepidoptera (butterflies, moths, etc). Though not relevant in my area, in some regions the plant is a favored food source for large mammals like bears and elk. 

Fireweed Has Ornamental Appeal

Many weeds are not favored as ornamental plants, but willowherb is actually a very attractive flowering plant. Where it pops up around my property, I find it not only useful but also visually appealing. This plant is sometimes grown as an ornamental and a white form known as "album" is listed by the Royal Horticultural Society. So, where it grows naturally, it can also be embraced for its ornamental appeal. 

Fireweed Has a Number of Edible Uses

Many people who are familiar with this plant as a weed that grows on disturbed ground and roadsides are surprised to learn that it is also a wild edible plant. We eat the young shoots of the plant as a wild green in the spring, before they become tough and bitter. They are a mild and versatile foraged vegetable. Some people also peel and eat the inner stems, raw or cooked, or even roast the roots before the plants flower. Fireweed is sometimes used to make a tea. 

The flowers can also be collected in the summer months and used to make a homestead 'honey' or syrup, or a jelly. It has a delicate floral and somewhat fruity flavor. Often the flowers are combined with other summer fruits in jellies and other preserves. 

Fireweed Provides Other Yields

The outer stems provide a plant fiber which can be used for cordage in much the same way as stinging nettle fibers can be used. The cordage from fireweed is not as strong or useful as that from nettles, but has a range of uses in natural crafting. The cotton-like seed hairs are also useful. These can be used as a stuffing material or to start fires as tinder. 

We tend to overlook plants that grow abundantly and easily in our areas, but fireweed is just one example of a common weed that actually can be a very useful addition to a garden. I certainly am glad that we have this plant growing in our area, and I look forward to seeing its tall pink flower spikes each year. 

Due to its capacity to spread extensively, you might not want to introduce fireweed if it is not already present in your area. But where it is already found growing naturally in the wild, this is a wildflower to embrace and welcome in your garden and around your property.