Fireweed (Cree: hapaskwa, askapask)

Heather MacLeod
Heritage Presenter
Wapusk National Park & Manitoba North National Historic Sites

Wapusk News - Volume 6, 2013

Fireweed at the height of bloom in early August Fireweed at the height of bloom in early August
© Parks Canada

Wapusk National Park (NP) and the surrounding region is internationally recognized for its biological diversity. The park protects many important and diverse habitats and populations of polar bears and birds and includes approximately 400 species of plants. Let’s take a close-up look at one of these plants, commonly known as fireweed (Chamerion augustifolium).

Fireweed is a hardy plant that grows throughout the circumpolar north and in mountainous zones in much of North America. Fireweed is also found as far away as Iceland, Greenland and northern Eurasia. These showy, purple-pink, fragrant flowers are unforgettable!

As its name suggests, fireweed is one of the first plants to re-colonize the landscape after a fire, or when an area has been disturbed, such as along roadsides or building sites. The unfolding summer season in Wapusk NP can be measured by the progressive blooming of various plants. Even as the snowbanks are retreating, the early spring blooms of the purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) seek the sun. These small, bright purple flowers are a welcome splash of colour on the otherwise monotone spring landscape. As the season progresses, the fragrant blooms of northern hedysarum (Hedysarum mackenzii) indicate that the summer wildflowers are at their peak. Finally, the appearance of the prolific fireweed reminds us that autumn is just around the corner. There is a saying in the North that when the fireweed blooms are at their best, the moose are fat enough for good hunting!

Fireweed has a long history of use as a traditional medicine and is known to have high concentrations of beta carotene, vitamin C and vitamin A. Prepared by an experienced person, the leaves of the plant have been used as a remedy for urinary tract disorders and general inflammation of the digestive tract and skin, while tea made from the whole plant has been used as a treatment for intestinal worms, asthma and whooping cough. Chewed roots, applied topically, are thought to draw the infection out of boils and abscesses. A word of caution: some plants may cause unpleasant or deadly side effects. Know your plants well before harvesting and using them.

Fireweed has also been used traditionally in a number of different, non-medicinal ways. Layers of fireweed can be made into a mat or work surface, referred to as “Old Timer’s Plywood,” and the fibrous stems can be used as twine. Fireweed can be used to make a delicious jelly. You will find many jelly recipes posted on the Internet. The young, tender shoots are very tasty in salads and can also be cooked as a pot vegetable and the flowers and buds make an eye-catching addition to any dish.

Sources for information:

  • Johnson, Karen. Wildflowers of Churchill. Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature, 1987.
  • Johnson, Derek; Kershaw, Linda; MacKinnon, Andy. Plants of the Western Boreal Forest and Aspen Parkland. Lone Pine Press, 1995.
  • Kershaw, Linda. Manitoba Wayside Wildflowers. Lone Pine Press , 2003.
  • Kershaw, Linda. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies. Lone Pine Press, 2000.
  • Marles, Robin J.; Clavelle, Christina; Monteleone, Leslie; Tays, Natalie; Burns, Donna. Aboriginal Plant Use in Canada’s Northwest Boreal Forest. Natural Resources Canada, 2008.
  • Walker, Marilyn. Identifying, Harvesting and Using Wild Plants of Eastern Canada. Nimbus Publishing Ltd., 2008.
A spectacular panorama carpet of fireweed A spectacular panorama carpet of fireweed
© Parks Canada