Fireweed the Survivor

Fireweed, or Epilobium angustifolium, is in full bloom in fields and along roadways right now and provides a beautiful splash of color against the mature greens of July.  The plant has an erect, un-branched stem with short stiff hairs on upper part.  The leaves are alternate, lance shaped, and 2-8 inches long with short petioles.  The flower inflorescence is an airy, delicate spike of deep pink to magenta blooms.  Fireweed is a common plant in the Northwest and can be found in any kind of soil, but is most often seen growing in areas that have been burned out, logged, or disturbed in some way.  It is one of the first pioneer plants to show up after a devastating event to the land, as was seen when stands of fireweed appeared on the barren Mount St. Helens.  Adele Dawson in her book “Health, Happiness, and the Pursuit of Herbs”, describes fireweed as “…a badge of nature’s rural renewal program”.

This member of the evening primrose family, also known as willow herb, or willow-weed, has a long tradition of use as a food and medicine with native peoples.  The new spring shoots are eaten as a food very much like asparagus and are high in vitamins A and C.  The young leaves can be added to salads as a green when collected from plants prior to blooming.  Medicinally, it has been used for its anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties.  A tea made from the leaves has a mild laxative effect.  A decoction from the whole plant has traditionally been used as an antispasmodic for coughs.  Other uses include mixing the powdered root with petroleum jelly to topically ease infected bug bites and abrasions and applying a poultice of the roasted and mashed root to boils.  A 2012 study suggests validity of the traditional medicinal use of Epilobium as an antibacterial.  The study found that whole plant preparations were as or more effective, when used against bacteria in culture, as vancomycin or tetracycline.  The presence of polyphenols, tannins and flavonoids was confirmed in a 2011 study which found that the total polyphenol content was highest in the roots and stems in July while the flavonoid content was highest in the leaves and flowers.  Tannins were found in highest concentrations in small plants in May.

 References 

Bartfay WJ, Bartfay E, Johnson JG. Gram-Negative and Gram-Positive Antibacterial Properties of the Whole Plant Extract of Willow Herb (Epilobium angustifolium). Biological Research Nursery. 2012 Jan:14(1):85-9.

Schofield, JJ. (1992). Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, the Northwest. Seattle WA: Alaska Northwest Books.

Foster S. and Hobbs C. (2002). Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Peterson Field Guides. New York NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Jurgenson S, Matto V, Raal A. Vegetational Variation of Phenolic Compounds in Epilobium angustifolium. Natural Products Research Journal. 2001 Dec 9.

Turner M. and Gustafson P. (2006). Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. Portland OR: Timber Press Inc.

 

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