Point of View: Bringing attention to our native plants during Alaska Native Plant Month in May

Sick of winter? Waiting for the snow to melt? Alaska’s native plants survived winter and are waiting too. Some, like pasqueflower, are so impatient they’ll push right through the snow.

Nearly every state sets aside a month to celebrate its native plants. In the Lower 48, that month is April. For obvious reasons, that doesn’t work so well in Alaska. Starting in 2023, by formal proclamation from the governor, May is the official month to celebrate Alaska native plants. This year, the Alaska Native Plant Society opted to celebrate a native plant of the year, too. With over 2,500 Alaska native plant species, picking one wasn’t easy. Should we have held an election for write-in candidates? Then ranked choice? Well, this year, a small committee picked … drumroll … fireweed.

Cherished for its beauty and utility, fireweed occurs throughout Alaska except for the far north above the Brooks Range. A partial list of fireweed’s Indigenous names in Alaska include: ch’deshtleq’a in Inland Dena’ina, tl’ik’desq’a in Upper Inlet Dena’ina, paniuqtaq in Iñupiaq, lóol in Lingít, ciilqaaq in Central Yup’ik, cillqaq in Alutiiq, and chikayaasix̂ in Unangax̂. Its previous scientific name was Epilobium angustifolium but that has been changed to the equally unpronounceable Chamaenerion angustifolium.

You might not recognize fireweed when it first comes up. Little, pinkish shoots. Then while you aren’t paying attention, a long stalk with buds emerges. Bumble bees and other pollinating insects are paying attention though. When the buds open, one by one ascending the stalk, the insects move in for the nectar, transferring pollen between plants. Faster than anyone wants, the uppermost blossom opens and performs as nature’s timekeeper, telling us winter is once again on the way. Seed pods develop and release white fluff that carries the seed to new ground. A Swedish study observed fireweed seeds floating over 330 feet above the ground. If seeds reach these heights, they can disperse 60-180 miles downwind. No wonder they are so widespread.

Bears and other wildlife eat fireweed. What about humans? Oh my, yes. Who doesn’t like fireweed honey from the state fair? Make a syrup or steam the baby fireweed shoots. Add a few sprigs to soups, casseroles, quiche, or a stir fry. Pickle unopened buds as a capers substitute. Blossoms brighten tossed salads and yield delicious jelly. Fireweed tea is flavorful though in excess can cause diarrhea. The Cooperative Extension Service provides storage and preservation tips and recipes for fireweed vinegar, scones, jelly, and fireweed honey. Yum! Forage responsibly by following the 10 percent rule, taking no more than that in the general area where foraging. And don’t pull up the roots as they will form future shoots.

What about nutritional and medicinal benefits? Janice Schofield, in her book “Alaska’s Wild Plants – A Guide to Alaska’s Edible and Healthful Harvest,” shares that spring shoots are high in vitamins A and C, as well as mucilage, a slippery substance that forms when the shoots are chopped and steeped in cold water overnight. The mucilage can soothe a scratchy throat or mouth ulcers, among other uses. Hot water infusions and poultices of fireweed leaves and roots are also used medicinally.

The benefits of fireweed aren’t limited to food and medicine. In the aftermath of wildland fires, clouds of lovely pink flowers appear amid the blackened trees. A pioneer species, fireweed is one of the first plants to arrive after fire, and helps the entire ecosystem by regenerating soil. Huge fields of fireweed form not only from seed but asexually, from underground stems called rhizomes that run horizontally just below the soil’s surface. If a pollinating insect never comes along to move the pollen for sexual reproduction, the fireweed has another way to survive. How smart.

We are blessed to share Alaska’s glorious summer with fireweed. As Alaska Native healer Dr. Rita Blumenstein said: “Fireweed heals wounded ground from fire or other destruction. It returns vitamins and life back in the soil. It is gentle and healing. It is also gentle & healing for people.”

Beth Baker is an Eagle River resident who serves on the board of the Alaska Native Plant Society as well as the planning committee for Alaska Native Plant Month.