Bee-friendly plants series: Fireweed

Fireweed is a tall, showy pink-flowered plant of the mid to late summer. It is in bloom now and will be into August. It is a pioneer plant, one of the first to colonize disturbed ground, whatever the cause of the disturbance: road work, construction, clear cut, forest fire. It gets its name from the fact that it will populate land after a fire, helping hold the soil until other pioneer species get started and continue the reclamation. It is a perennial and typically thrives for about five years in disturbed ground until the other species take over. It produces lots of small wind-borne seed that are carried by a kind of wispy, white “wool”. I’ve collected the “wool” in late summer and tried to start them …no success. Bees love it; it is a bridge plant helping bees over the late July, early August dearth until golden rod gets going. In the right circumstances they can make a honey crop off it. A few years after we started beekeeping in 1973, we learned of a smart move by Endel Karmo who was then the provincial apiarist and beekeeper. In 1976 there had been a wildfire that burned 13,000 hectares between Hopewell and Trafalgar –“one of the largest wildfires we’ve ever had,” said Walter Fanning. Endel, I was told, saw an opportunity in the disaster and moved his hives there in subsequent years to make a fireweed honey crop. It pays to pay attention. I’ve also heard of a bee club in BC that has a communal electrified, well-fenced yard in forestry/bear country where members can put their hives out to fireweed. Fireweed is Yukon’s floral emblem – which speaks to its wide distribution and ability to thrive in our short, long-dayed summers. Foody factoid: Centuries ago fireweed leaves were used to make a tea in Russia (think Labrador tea in Canada) and the tea called Russian tea or Ivan Chai was even exported. Wikipedia says it is still consumed in Russia. Makes one want to try it.

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