Species: Epilobium angustifolium
Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) is a hardy perennial plant with a large range. It is most commonly found in Alaska, the Canadian provinces, and the Pacific Northwest of the United States, although it can be found as far south as the American Midwest. Closely related species which are similar in appearance are found in Siberia and other circumpolar regions.
There are several plants commonly called fireweed, for their presence in burned over areas, or for the color of their flowers. Despite its large range, Epilobium angustifolium is easily distinguishable because of its unique physical appearance. The fireweed plant has a single main stem with narrow, alternating leaves springing directly from it. The leaves are smooth edged, usually 3 to 6 inches (7.6 to 15.2cm) in length, and taper to a point.
The top of the main stem terminates in a stalk with flower buds on smaller stems alternating upward to a peak. This gives the effect of a small, elongated pyramid of blooms at the top of the leafy fireweed stem. The flowers are a vivid pinkish-purple, and bloom from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, beginning some time in June. As the lower flowers finish blooming, they produce a seed pod. The seed pods on the lower flower stalks begin opening and dispersing cottony white seeds while the uppermost flowers are still in bloom. Folk wisdom says that when the last of the fireweed cotton has flown, snow will follow in less than six weeks. As the weather cools in the fall, the fireweed's leaves begin to turn a deep, brilliant red. This beautiful display of fall color is particularly distinctive in northern Canada and Alaska, where deciduous tree leaves mainly turn yellow or orange.
Fireweed is a pioneer plant which flourishes in areas with disturbed soil, such as roadsides, clear-cuts, powerline trails, and burn-overs. It grows rapidly, especially in conditions with ample sunlight and moderate soil moisture. In ideal conditions, a fireweed stalk can grow to nine feet tall in a single summer! The typical fireweed plant, however, generally ranges between two and five feet (0.6 to 1.5m) in height. Although they are able to do well in a variety of soil types and moisture conditions, fireweed does not stand up to competition well. Typically, a short time after fireweed colonizes a disturbed area, it is outcompeted and chased out by second wave plants like willow and alder.
The fireweed plant is not typically eaten by humans, although moose and other herbivores will snack on it. Humans do eat the honey produced from fireweed nectar, as well as fireweed syrup and jelly made from the flowers. These delicious sweets are generally lighter in color than the more common clover honey, and have a delicate flavor all their own.
Sources: Most of these sites have good pictures of fireweed as well.