“Fireweed, what is it?” I get asked this question quite often at my booth at the Ballard Farmers Market in Seattle. Usually when someone is holding one of the two raw fireweed honeys we have on the table: A fireweed/snowberry from northwest Washington and a fireweed/wildflower from Mt. Rainier.
Fireweed (Chamaenerion angstifolium) is a beautiful flower that grows throughout the Northern Hemisphere from Norway to Washington State.
In older books, and in Canada apparently, it is known as willowherb. Here, in the western Cascade Mountain range, I usually see it along roads, and in large stands in open alpine areas in the late summer and fall.
The flowers are tall stalks that can have over 50 blooms on each plant. Each stalk can be two to five feet tall, with some sightings standing at eight feet.
The fireweed flowers start blooming low on the stalk then open up on the higher portions as the season progresses. In the fall, the seeds appear: thin packets that are surrounded by light fluffy strands that can ride a breeze to new locations. One plant can produce over 50,000 seeds.
The plant likes open areas, where the ground has been disturbed and cleared of other plants. It is often one of the first flowers up after a fire (thus the name). These days it follows clear cuts as well – although the honey flow always seems to be less in these areas…possibly the plant’s “preference” for carbon over diesel fuel in the soil.
That open space is vital for fireweed, so when other foliage returns, the plant disappears. Its fallen seeds may remain, however, and should that area be open once again by fire or machines the fireweed will rise again.
An absolutely pure fireweed honey is hard to get. Beekeepers try to find “pure” stands of fireweed, but the plant is a wildflower and other wild plants are often blooming at the same time, and bees do travel.
Here in western Washington low elevation fireweed blooms at the same time as native and invasive blackberries.
This is why honey labeled only as “Fireweed” can look quite different between apiaries.
A pure fireweed honey is almost clear, with a slight tinge of green. Do not despair, fireweed/wildflower combinations are delightful honeys.
Beyond producing the nectar that the bees turn into a light, delicate honey, fireweed has other uses. Young fireweed tastes rather like asparagus and is high in vitamins A and C. The leaves make a nice tea. However yummy they are, I do try to leave the fireweed for the bees.
That’s the news from Brookfield Farm Bees and Honey here in Maple Falls, Washington. What’s happening right now? The on-going chores on any farm, but done with the joy that a lack of snow brings…The snow is happily staying up on the high mountains where it belongs, at least at this moment.