In the wake of notably catastrophic forest fires across Canada in recent years, vast, swaying seas of pink have inundated many areas of blackened earth. Picturesque and possessed of phenomenal regenerative powers, fireweed may sprout within weeks of a burn.
Fireweed flourishes a hundred or more vibrant pink flowers along its sturdy stem, up to two metres tall, gradually blooming from the bottom up, through the summer and into September. They yield a highly prized honey and in northern regions are the most bountiful source of nectar for bees, butterflies, moths, and other insects.
Each flower lasts for several days, producing pollen for the first, before filling with nectar and projecting a long, white female style. Bees fly to fireweed’s lower, nectar-rich older blossoms initially, then buzz up to the younger ones above, before departing laden with their pollen to cross-fertilize the bottom flowers of another spire.
Once pollinated, the flowers close and fall away, leaving spiny purplish pods that curl and split in about a month. Each releases several hundred tiny, silk-tasselled seeds. Air currents raise many of these wisps up more than 100 metres and can carry them 300 km in a day.
Fireweed forms extensive colonies by spreading runners just beneath the ground that can persist for decades, long after regenerating forests shade out most of its flowers. Roots that survive fires explode with growth, expanding by the metre and sometimes producing flowering spires within the same growing season. Its power to capture the burst of nutrients released by forest upheavals before they’re washed away also makes fireweed a favoured pioneer on lands cleared by the forestry, mining, and oil industries.