Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.
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One of my favorite end-of-summer wildflowers is the beautiful pink plumes of fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), also known as rosebay willowherb and part of the evening primrose family (Onagraceae), found throughout the mountains around Steamboat Springs. This Zone 3 perennial flowering plant appears in open fields, meadows and particularly in areas where a forest fire has burned leaving behind lots of acidic carbon in the soil. It makes returning to a burn area in the years following a forest fire very rewarding. Often, you will see a whole field full of pink flowering fireweed.
Two of my favorite sites for seeing a profusion of fireweed is on Rabbit Ears Pass and up on Buffalo Pass this time of year. I’ve also noticed it in the burn areas off Seedhouse Road, such as the North Fork Trail and Mica Lake Trail.
The plant features a reddish stem that can grow up to 8 feet high and has small leaves growing on alternate sides of the stem. These leaves are quite unusual in that the veins form circular loops that don’t reach to the outside edge. It makes this plant easy to identify and differentiates it from several members of the lily family that are toxic. Once in bloom, the stem is covered with small four-petal pink unscented flowers that form a beautiful plume.
When this plant is finished blooming, a seed capsule containing 300 to 400 seeds is created attached to the ends of wispy silky strands that blow for miles in the wind. Once they land, the seeds are viable for many years and will sprout when conditions are just right. One plant can product as many as 80,000 seeds. It also reproduces by spreading rhizomes (roots).
During the World War II in Britain, this plant became known as bombweed when it grew profusely in the craters left in the soil following bombing raids in the countryside. It makes a wonderful revegetation plant for areas where the soil has been disturbed but can become an aggressive species of plant if you’re trying to revegetate with other natives as its root system will spread and muscle out other plants trying to gain a foothold in the soil.
Native Americans used to collect fireweed early in the spring and use the young shoots in salads with other greens. They also would peel the stem and eat it or add it to their dogs’ food. The national flower of Russia, the leaves have been used as a tea substitute, steeping like you would regular tea leaves. They call it Kapoor tea.
If you wish to grow fireweed in your garden, plant a few seeds or cuttings (not a lot since it could become aggressive in the caring environment of a personal garden). Well-drained, moist soil and a sunny location is ideal, though the plant can handle some shade.
In this dry, hot year locally, fireweed is one of the wildflower species that seems to have weathered the conditions very well. The flowers on the plants don’t last long, so take time in the next few weeks to seek them out before they are finished blooming.
Deb Babcock is a master gardener through the CSU Extension Office Routt County. If you have questions or topic ideas, call the Extension office at 970-879-0825.