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Botany of Ice Cream: Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)

An Alaskan icon of summer, fireweed is the most requested flavor at Wild Scoops! Here’s a bit of information about our favorite local wildflower.

Range: Native throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Can be found in all the provinces of Canada and across much of the U.S., extending as far south as mountainous areas in New Mexico and North Carolina.

Preferred habitat: Thrives in recently disturbed areas, including roadsides, avalanche areas, along wetlands, on the borders of forests, and in recently burned or logged regions.

Size: A single plant often reaches 4-6 feet in height, but the tallest have been reported at 9 feet!

Distinguishing features: Most iconic characteristic is its pink flowers, which can bloom from late June into September. Stalks can appear reddish; leaves are long, narrow, and clearly veined.

And if that's not enough, here are some more cool facts about Alaska's favorite flower:

Its name is earned through resilience

The common name “fireweed” was bestowed on the flower because it is one of the first plants able to grow back following a wildfire. This type of plant is known as an early successional species, and it plays a critical role in helping the whole ecosystem recover. Once fireweed reestablishes itself in an area, it starts taking up soil nutrients, which in turn makes them more accessible to other plants. Without hardy survivors like fireweed, most of the more specialized trees and flowers in a given environment would not be able to come back after a devastating event such as a fire, eruption, or avalanche.

But how does fireweed do it? What makes it so adaptable? Well…

The secret to its productive success? Seed parachutes!

One trait that fireweed has working in its favor is its incredible productivity. A single plant can make 80,000 seeds in a summer! And the plant has a good strategy for getting those seeds out into the world: white, fluffy fibers attached to seed capsules act like parachutes, so the wind can set seeds sailing a great distance. The other big tool fireweed has up its sleeve (or under its stem, actually) is an extensive root system. This means that even if the aboveground part of the plant is destroyed, it can keep growing safely below the soil.

Most of the plant is edible

Fireweed flowers can be eaten straight off the plant, and they make a lovely addition to a salad. They are also boiled down to make jelly and syrup. But why stop there? People across the world have found ways to use almost every part of the plant! In Russia and Great Britain, the leaves have commonly been used to make tea. When the young plants first emerge in the summer, their new shoots are tender and full of vitamins A & C; they can be enjoyed as a tasty spring vegetable, which has been likened to asparagus in taste and texture. Even those “seed parachutes” can be helpful to humans—the tough fiber can be used for weaving and padding.

So there we have it: Fireweed, the famous wildflower that has firmly rooted itself in the minds of all who travel through our state in the summertime. Hope you've learned a bit about this fun local ingredient!

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