The vibrant magenta blooms of the fireweed plant are creeping ever closer to the top of its stem. It is nature's way of reminding Alaskans that autumn is coming.
Homesteader lore suggests that once the plant has "bloomed out," winter is only six weeks away.
While some find that depressing, others embrace the plant's heralding of cooler temperatures, that birds and tourists will be migrating south, and that there will be shorter lines at the grocery store as cause to rejoice.
Fireweed is a perennial herb plant that grows from 1 1/2 to eight feet high and has a multitude of leaves. Known for its bountiful magenta blooms, rarer white blooms do exist, but as an anomaly.
As the growing season comes to a close and the stalks begin to turn a brilliant hue of red, it would be easy to assume that is where its name originates. However, it is its ability to be the first plant to regenerate in a burn area even in places where it is not usually known to grow that its name derives.
In 1666, after the great fire of London, fireweed sprung up, blanketing the city. It wasn't be until 1944, after London was blitzed, that it made another appearance there.
A bumblebee sips nectar from a white fireweed blossom. White fireweed is common in Europe, said Susan Jordan of Fireweed Herb Garden in Kenai.
Photo by Mark Harrison
On the Kenai Peninsula, fireweed grows abundantly in open meadows, logging and burn sites, on riverbanks and along the roadside.
According to Linda Tannehill, home economist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension, fireweed is edible and, when properly prepared, a source of vitamin A. It can be used in salad in the spring, when the first tender shoots appear, until late in the fall when the blooms are at their peak and can be made into fireweed honey, jelly and tea. That means there still is time before the first frost to make use of this plant.
The Extension Services office offers the following advice when gathering, storing and cooking with fireweed.
Do not use plants that grow directly along the roadside, due to exhaust fumes and dirt;
Wash plants with warm water;
Pat dry and store fresh fireweed in a covered container in the refrigerator; and
To dry fireweed lay it on paper towel for several days and store it in a sealed container in a cool, dry place.
Alaska Fireweed Honey
Susan Jordan, Kenai
10 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups boiling water
1 teaspoon alum
30 white clover blossoms
30 red clover blossoms
18 fireweed blossoms
Sterilize pint or half-pint canning jars and prepare lids. Wash blossoms in colander. Place water and petals in a large pan and bring to boil. Remove from heat and steep for 10 minutes. Return to heat, bring to boil and add sugar and alum. Boil 10 more minutes. Strain mixture through cheesecloth. Immediately pour honey into hot canning jars, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Wipe jar rims and add prepared two-piece lids. Yields eight cups.
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Cooperative Extension Service
Leaves and stems are best when picked in the spring when they are young and tender. Place a generous amount of leaves in a warmed tea pot and pour boiling water over them, filing the pot. Steep for 5 to 10 minutes. Resulting tea will be light green with a sweet taste. Fireweed tea does not require sugar or milk to improve its flavor.
Lyn's Fireweed Jelly
UAF Cooperative Extension Service
2 /12 cups fireweed juice (recipe below)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon butter, margarine or oil
3 tablespoons powdered pectin
3 cups sugar
Sterilize pint or half jars and prepare lids. Measure sugar and set aside. Combine fireweed juice, lemon juice, oil and pectin in large pan. Bring to full rolling boil and boil hard for one minute, stirring constantly. Add sugar and boil hard for one minute, stirring constantly.
Test by dropping 1/2 teaspoon of the jelly mixture on a cold saucer and put it in the freezer for five minutes. If the mixture did not gel to your satisfaction, add 1/2 cup sugar to the jelly in the pot and boil hard for one minute longer. Retest. During the testing process, the rest of the jelly mixture should be removed from the heat. When test mixture gels to satisfaction, ladle jelly into hot jars, add two-piece lids and process five minutes in a boiling water bath. Yields 3 cups.
UAF Cooperative Extension Service
In a large sauce pan bring 2 1/2 cups water to a rapid boil. Pour boiling water over 2 cups hard-packed fireweed petals and buds (press fireweed down hard to measure two cups). Let stand until cool. Refrigerate overnight to bring out the color. Strain through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth. For long-term storage, the juice should be frozen.
8 cups firmly packed fireweed blossoms (no stems)
1/4 cup lemon juice
4 1/2 cups water
2 packages powdered pectin
5 cups sugar
Sterilize pint or half jars and prepare lids. Pick, wash and measure blossoms. Add lemon juice and water. Boil 10 minutes and strain (for better color, let set overnight in refrigerator.) Reheat strained juice to lukewarm. Add pectin and bring to boil, add sugar and return to boil. Boil hard for one minute. Ladle jelly into hot jars, add two-piece lids and process for five minutes in a boiling water bath. Yields 3 cups.
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