There is something magical about hiking to a high alpine lake in the summertime – the towering mountains, the crystal clear water, the bluebird-colored sky, and the wildflowers. But in late summer at high elevations, those flowers are dwindling, and the signs of fall are everywhere. And yet, there is still fireweed.
This hardy plant got its name because it is one of the first to grow and bloom again after a disturbance, specifically wildfires. Beautiful, yes, but also important. This colonization plays a key role in soil stabilization after fires, mudslides, and avalanches. It has long roots that are able to reach deep into the ground for minerals. Not only that, but the plant itself is highly adaptable. One plant can produce thousands of tiny seeds (up to 80,000!) that disperse in the wind; these seeds have tufts of white hairs that act like parachutes and can carry the seed far from its parent plant.
I witnessed firsthand the importance of these plants to bees, providing nectar in late summer – the meadow was literally buzzing. Other animals also use fireweed as a food source, including bears, muskrats, moose, deer, and elk. Long ago, the plants were important to native people worldwide. It was used as to make tea, and the shoots apparently are tasty and full of vitamins A and C. I’m not sure I’ll taste a fireweed myself, but I do enjoy them!