Fireweed is surely one of the world’s most lovely native plants saddled with the least appealing name.
Why not call it “In Your Face Gorgeous Weed” instead? Coming from south of the Mason-Dixon Line, which is just about the only place on the continent that it does not grow, I had never seen it, until one day in Alaska, a meadow filled with these tall pink spires took my breath away. I fell in love. I wanted to be surrounded by them, like Dorothy in the poppy field.
So here at our cabin, where our yard is all weeds anyway, I encourage dense stands of showy pink/purple fireweed. The slim plant stalks grow to about six feet, and in some places that is fine, but in others, I top the plants at knee and waist height, delighted that they still bloom. Over a period of about three weeks, between mid-July and mid-August, the delicate, fingernail sized blossoms (the texture of a violet) bloom in rows from the bottom to the top of the spire, about one row every day.
Then, suddenly, overnight, the green lance-like leaves dry and curl up and the flowers turn to a mass of white cotton, like dandelions, and blow all over the yard. It is like some time-lapse photography of a gorgeous Hollywood temptress gone to … well, seed. In fact, a single plant can release up to 80,000 seeds. So I will never be without my beloved fireweed.
Various parts of the plant are edible at different times in its life cycle. I’ve tried eating the green leaves and shoots in salads and steeping them for tea. Maybe someone who drinks wheat grass would appreciate its flavor notes and extol its Vitamin A and C content, but to me it just tastes green, like grass. But hey – that’s what salad dressing and honey are for.
The flowers, however, are a flavor revelation. And since the plants have no thorns, and it is easy to find convenient blossoms at chest height, they probably offer the easiest food harvest on the planet (besides cranberries). To collect eight (loose) cups of individual blossoms in good condition, with no green stuff, takes about 45 minutes. During the process my hands get slightly sticky from the nectar that will flavor the jelly or syrup I will make. From the hum of surrounding pollinators, it will flavor my subsequent honey harvest, too.
For beauty, but not much flavor, the flowers look gorgeous in an ice cube or as a garnish, but for most recipes, I rinse, soak, and rinse again the flowers to remove any tiny bugs that may have hijacked a ride, and in the process, degrade their texture. Then I measure the damp flowers for the recipes below (About 8 loose cups of flowers yield about 2 cups damp flowers firmly measured), and boil them to release a delicious aroma and flavor – something between cranberries and tart cherries.
Boiling will leach the color into the liquid, leaving the flowers a rather sad looking gray. The resulting juice, jelly, or syrup will be a knock-your-socks off amethyst color, pretty enough to decorate a sunny window sill, like a stained glass window.
Below is a recipe from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Community Extension Office (annotated by me for first-timers). I whole-heartedly endorse the great information this resource offers about growing and eating innumerable native and gardened plants in Alaska. Check it out: www.uaf.edu/files/ces/publications-db/catalog/hec/FNH-00106.pdf
In a large saucepan, bring 2½ cups water to a rapid boil. Pour boiling water over 2 cups hard-packed fireweed petals and buds (press fireweed down hard to measure 2 cups), let stand until cool. Refrigerate overnight to bring out the color. Strain (through a jelly bag, or several layers of cheesecloth, or new pantyhose). Discard flowers.
Yield: 2½ cups.
Note: this is the base recipe for use in other recipes. To drink it straight, you may like it plain or may add citrus or sweetener.
Pour into sterilized containers leaving ½ inch headspace. Seal, label with date, and freeze.
JELLY OR SYRUP
Helpful hint 1: The only difference between jelly and syrup is texture. If a batch thickens, it is jelly, if it doesn’t it is syrup. So frankly, I never do the freezer test, below.
Helpful hint 2: Pectin is for sale in the baking aisle. Canning jars (glass jars with two part, metal lids) are for sale at almost every supermarket for $1 per container or less. To sterilize them, you just need a pot deep enough to submerge the containers in boiling water. For short jars (like for jelly or syrup), the average spaghetti pot will do. Give it a try.
Ingredients: 2½ cups fireweed juice (see first recipe), 3 cups sugar, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, ½ teaspoon butter, margarine or oil, 3 tablespoons powdered pectin.
Supplies: 6 small 4 oz. canning jars and lids
Process: Sterilize canning jars and lids (boil them in a spaghetti pot). Meanwhile, combine fireweed juice, lemon juice, pectin and butter, margarine or oil in a large saucepan. Bring to a full rolling boil and boil hard for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add sugar and boil hard for 1 more minute, stirring constantly. That’s all.
(If you are concerned about texture, do the following. If not, don’t worry about it)
To test, drop ½ teaspoon of jelly on a cold saucer and put it in the freezer for 5 minutes. If the mixture does not set to your satisfaction, add ½ cup sugar to the jelly in the pot and boil hard for 1 minute. Retest. During the test, the rest of the jelly mixture should be removed from the heat.
When you are satisfied with the texture, ladle jelly (or syrup) into hot jars, add two-piece lids and lower into boiling water for 5 minutes. When you hear and see the lid “suck in” to a concave airlock shape, you know the unopened jars will safely last a long time, without refrigeration.
Yield: 3 cups