Planet Alaska : Ten lessons from the fireweed

By Yéilk’ Vivian Mork

Yes, I’m thinking about fireweed in the middle of winter. In these dark times, I close my eyes and see fuchsia blossoms buzzing with bumblebees. 2021 was the second year we’ve been living through this pandemic, and it’s been hard. I’ve been feeling this sense of languishing, so I know you’ve probably been feeling it too. We are grieving. We’ve been sick and we’ve lost friends or family, our elders. Our jobs might’ve changed, our business shut down. Looking forward to a new year is hard for many of us. There’s a lot of anxiety. This brings me back to the fireweed. I’m thinking about fireweed because fireweed gives me hope.

Fireweed is a gift from Tlingit Aaní. In our Lingít language it’s called lóol. I look to Tlingit Aaní to help heal, to enliven, to balance my life so this leads me to consider the lessons of the fireweed. What lessons can this flower offer us as we reflect on 2021 and move forward into 2022?

Yéilk’ Vivian Mork / For the Capital City Weekly Fireweed offers lessons for the new year.

Yéilk’ Vivian Mork / For the Capital City Weekly
Fireweed offers lessons for the new year.

Preparing: As snow keeps falling, we’re not thinking about what the plants are doing in the winter, but the fireweed is there preparing for the next year. It’s ever-present. It’s still there under three feet of snow. The fireweed plant is an expert at preparing. This is one of the most important lessons we receive from this plant. We often think about other seasons as times to prepare for winter, but winter is also a time to prepare for our upcoming busy seasons. Fireweed tea is made from the leaves. High in vitamins A and C and there’s an art to fermenting and preparing the tea for use in winter. If you’re enjoying fireweed tea in the winter, you’ve practiced preparedness.

Growth and Tolerance: Fireweed grows along our roadsides, in disturbed areas, in our logged forests, along the borders of meadows, forests, and streams. It expands in a large and long-lived structure of shallow roots. It’s tolerant of acidic, neutral, and alkaline soils. We can surely learn growth and tolerance from the fireweed. This winter, let’s ask ourselves where we need to grow? In the fireweed’s world there’s always room for growth.

Beauty: Fireweed are determined to share their beauty. A káx yan aydél wé tl’átgi — We are stewards of the air land and sea. When we walk through a field of fireweed, we sense that the beauty in the moment is just for us, that this plant was created so we could share the world with bees and beauty. We are a part of that beauty.

Persistence: You know why I like fireweed? Because they’re one of the first plants to grow up after the land has burned from forest fire. They grow in adversity where nothing else does. Yee gu.aa yáx x’wán. Be strong and have courage. Be a Fireweed!

Reclaim a place and space: Fireweed loves open spaces. It’s the plant that returns and reclaims a place and beautifies it. One single plant can produce 80,000 seeds. It doesn’t stop feeding places even in winter. We humans can claim a winter space too. Make space in the winter for art, storytelling, renewing relationships, planning, or learning something new. Make space for taking care of our Elders. Reclaim your winter space as a place for dreams.

Roots: Consider where we come from: our clans, the land, our ancestors. Toowú klagé haa t’aakx’í, ka haa naax sateeyí, ka haa kusteeyí. Have pride in our family and our clan and our traditions. I’m both Tlingit and Hawaiian. Alaska and Hawaii are two of my favorite places in the world and my favorite fireweed flavor combo is fireweed and dragon fruit. Fireweed teaches us to be diverse, to know who we are. Our roots are important, they’re what holds us to place, and form our first relationships, which is to the land.

Endurance: Over these last few years, we’ve witnessed how climate change is affecting the fireweed. But still, they endure. Yee toowú klatseen. Be strong. I’ve seen some strange alien-looking fireweed plants with thicker stalks. I’ve seen fireweed “bushes” rather than single stalk plants. I saw a fireweed that had more than 20 new start tips growing along the entire stalk. I’ve never seen a single fireweed with that many tips. I’ve seen fireweed stalks with bent shapes, and some with curled ends, and square stalks (not round), and some with leaves bunched together. But still, they endure.

Community: We are like fireweed rhizomes. We are community so we must to tend to our community. Wooch eenx haa isteeyí, wooch dusxáni, wooch éet wutudasheeyí. When we’re together, we love each other, we help each other. Our community is resilient like the fireweed. In fact, fragmenting the rhizomes stimulates the shoots to grow. By harvesting fireweed, we are tending to our community because we’re going to make something with it and gift it away. We’re also helping the plant community flourish. This tending to our community is important, especially in the winter. We are rhizomes growing from roots, reaching out together to make a forest of fireweed.

Peace: Whenever I walk into a field of fireweed, I sense peace. Tlél kútx i yáa wdawóodlik—Have patience. This past year, in the moments the rain stopped, I walked my dog around the neighborhood and through the fireweed meadows. I picked fireweed blossoms and dried some and infused them in honey. I picked fireweed and brewed a mixed tea of s’ikshaldéen (Labrador tea), blueberries, thimbleberry and ginger.

Healing: Winter can be healing. For our minds it can be a time of reflection. For our bodies it provides rest. Fireweed medicine is good medicine that can assist us. Fireweed can be used as a decongestion for coughs and asthma, ulcers, gastritis, and colitis. Fireweed also has anti-inflammatory properties and has been used for arthritis and rheumatism. Tlingit Aaní provides many healing plants for us.

Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) offers us lesson at every stage including the dormant stage as it prepares for spring. Fireweed is a member of the Evening Primrose family (Onagraceae). It’s a perennial growing from 4 to 6 feet high up to 9 feet high. It’s a valued food for humans and animals too like deer, moose, caribou, rabbits, and muskrats.

This photo shows fireweed, quinoa, cheese, bison tacos next to the river. (Yéilk’ Vivian Mork / For the Capital City Weekly)

This photo shows fireweed, quinoa, cheese, bison tacos next to the river. (Yéilk’ Vivian Mork / For the Capital City Weekly)

Fireweed is my favorite harbinger of spring and it’s one of the best first spring vegetables. As soon as the snow is gone, look for it. A lot of people don’t notice when fireweed shoots come up, and by the time they do, its past the edible stage. Fireweed stalks, leaves, and blossoms are good to combine with other plants and foods. I’ve made fireweed scones, honey, jelly, smoothies, muffins, sauces, tea, lemonade, syrup and dressings. Fireweed shoots can be pickled and steamed, and the buds can be added to salads or pickled as capers. I make teas from dried or fermented leaves.

This winter, as we inhabit this winter space, as we layer on socks and long underwear, as we clomp in our cleats across ice and shovel the driveway yet again, think of the fireweed lessons. Fireweed lessons include preparedness, growth and tolerance, beauty, persistence, reclamation, roots, endurance, community, peace, and healing. Maybe we can all try to be a bit of fireweed.

• Yéilk’ Vivian Mork writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska appears twice monthly in the Capital City Weekly.

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