When it comes to writing about fireweed, I’m not sure where to start. I could start by trying to describe how in this part of Alaska it colors the hillsides in magenta from mid July through the end of August. Or I could start with how it looks right now out our back window with its rust colored leaves alongside the green of the lilac bush and the yellow of the cottonwood trees.
I could start with the week in early summer when I caught a cold and couldn’t go to work for a few days. On my days at home I collected a few of last year’s fireweed stalks that were still standing and peeled the outermost layer of their stems and worked them until I had a fine golden fiber that I made into cordage. Or I could start with the tea we’ve started making out of fermented fireweed leaves.
It makes the most sense though to start with soil. Everything starts with soil it seems, but even the soil needs to start somewhere.
Growing up in Colorado I wasn’t familiar with fireweed, and the first time I learned about it was in 1988 when I was fighting fires in Yellowstone. The other woman on my 20-person crew told me how it was one of the first plants to come up on charred ground after a forest fire. At the time I didn’t know what it looked like, but I appreciated the role it played in bringing a place back to life after so much destruction. And I liked that its name and its purpose went together so nicely.
When we first moved to Alaska and lived in Eagle River I asked a neighbor what the tall plant on the side of the road was. She told me it was fireweed and that I’d need to be vigilant about pulling it out of the flower beds on the side of my house or it would take over. Then I had a baby and was anything but vigilant about the flower beds and the fireweed took over.
Now we live in a place that’s surrounded by well established fireweed colonies. This time of year when its seeds are dispersed with the wind, it lands on any exposed soil and settles in and readies itself for sprouting after the snow is gone. It spreads under the soil too, with rhizomes, and sends up delectable shoots that we collect sometimes to add to our spring greens. Its a plant that’s tenacious in its purpose and it would reclaim the space we’ve carved out for our garden in no time at all if we didn’t work to keep it back.
Two years ago a fire raged through the Cooper Landing area further north on the Kenai Peninsula, and twice this summer I drove past and witnessed the fireweed doing its job. In early July the ground under the charred trees was covered with short fireweed plants in full bloom. The second time I drove through in late August it was a sunny day and the cottony seeds were already drifting around in the breeze. It hadn’t grown tall and it had to complete its reproduction cycle with limited support from the soil, but it did it.
Soon it will all get knocked down by snow and all those plant parts will decompose into the ash. In the spring there will be organic matter for the new batch of seeds, and because there will be a bit more for those seeds to take root in next year than there was this year, those plants may be able to grow a little taller and last a little longer, and the cycle will repeat itself.
A few years ago we started raking fireweed stalks along with other dried plant material in the spring and keeping it piled up beside our compost pile. We layered it in as we added kitchen scraps and grass clippings and whatever other green material got tossed in. In the spring we’d sift the compost and add it to our garden beds.
Two summers ago when it was so hot and the fires were burning up north, we struggled to keep our garden watered. We don’t have a water source other than a well on our property and without any precipitation our rain barrels were empty. In addition to water being scarce, our soil lacked structure and the water drained right through. All of the compost we’d gone through the trouble of sifting wasn’t doing us a lot of good.
The following winter we read up on the subject of retaining water in the soil and decided to switch up the way we garden. Since then we’ve become no-till gardening converts and we obsessively keep the soil covered. We often use fireweed as our mulch because it’s here and readily available. The new shoots that want to come up in our garden beds get broken off and incorporated into the mulch blend, and the dried stalks from previous summers act as straw.
With just that simple change in how we garden the soil’s improvement has been remarkable. A peek beneath the mulch reveals a whole decomposition party going on. Now instead of the worms doing their work several inches down, they’re right at the surface of the soil tilling it up, breaking down whatever we add, and creating a living structure that holds moisture and nutrients.
There are many ways to use fireweed and I’m excited to write more about this amazing plant in future posts, but it’s good to remember that its best gifts have little to do with how we use it and more to do with how it exists. It’s a thing of beauty in all its stages. It heals the damaged places. It works to make the world a better place, whether we’re paying attention or not.