Chamaenerion angustifolium

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"Fireweed" redirects here. For other uses, see Fireweed (disambiguation).
Rosebay willowherb or fireweed
Maitohorsma (Epilobium angustifolium).JPG
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Eudicots
Clade: Rosids
Order: Myrtales
Family: Onagraceae
Genus: Chamaenerion
Species: C. angustifolium
Binomial name
Chamaenerion angustifolium
(L.) Scop.
  • Epilobium angustifolium L.
  • Chamerion angustifolium (L.) Holub

Chamaenerion angustifolium, commonly known in North America as fireweed, in some parts of Canada as great willowherb,[1] and in Britain as rosebay willowherb,[2] is a perennial herbaceous plant in the willowherb family Onagraceae. It is also known by the synonyms Chamerion angustifolium and Epilobium angustifolium.

It is native throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere, including large parts of the boreal forests.

This species has been placed in the genus Chamaenerion (sometimes given as Chamerion) rather than Epilobium based on several morphological distinctions: spiral (rather than opposite or whorled) leaf arrangement; absence (rather than presence) of a hypanthium; subequal stamens (rather than stamens in two unequal whorls); zygomorphic (rather than actinomorphic) stamens and stigma. Under this taxonomic arrangement, Chamaenerion and Epilobium are monophyletic sister genera.[3]

Two subspecies are recognized as valid:[3]

  • Chamaenerion angustifolium subsp. angustifolium
  • Chamaenerion angustifolium subsp. circumvagum (Mosquin) Hoch


The specific epithet angustifolium ('narrowleaved') is constructed from the Latin words angustus meaning 'narrow' and folium meaning 'leaved' or 'leaf'. It shares this name with other species of plant including Vaccinium angustifolium. The common British name, from the passing resemblance of the flowers to roses and the leaves to those of bay, goes back in print to Gerard's Herball of 1597.[4] The common name 'fireweed' derives from the species' abundance as a coloniser on burnt sites after forest fires.


The reddish stems of this herbaceous perennial are usually simple, erect, smooth, 0.5–2.5 m (1½–8 feet) high with scattered alternate leaves. The leaves are spirally arranged, entire, narrowly lanceolate, and pinnately veined, the secondary leaf veins anastomosing, joining together to form a continuous marginal vein just inside the leaf margins.[5]:NQ

The inflorescence is a symmetrical terminal raceme that blooms progressively from bottom to top, producing a gracefully tapered shape. The flowers are 2 to 3 cm in diameter, slightly asymmetrical, with four magenta to pink petals and four narrower pink sepals behind. The protruding style has four stigmas. The floral formula is ✶/↓ K4 C4 A4+4 or 4+0 Ğ(4).[6]

Fireweed flower close-up

The upright, reddish-brown linear seed capsule splits from the apex and curls open. It bears many minute brown seeds, about 300 to 400 per capsule and 80,000 per plant. The seeds have silky hairs to aid wind dispersal and are very easily spread by the wind, often becoming a weed and a dominant species on disturbed ground. Once established, the plants also spread extensively by underground roots, an individual plant eventually forming a large patch.


On granite
Capsule & seed stage
C. angustifolium thrives in areas cleared by fire.
White-tailed bumblebee on a flower

Fireweed is often abundant in wet calcareous to slightly acidic soils in open fields, pastures, and particularly burned-over lands. It is a pioneer species that quickly colonizes open areas with little competition, such as the sites of forest fires and forest clearings. Plants grow and flower as long as there is open space and plenty of light. As trees and brush grow larger the plants die out, but the seeds remain viable in the soil seed bank for many years.[citation needed] When a new fire or other disturbance occurs that opens up the ground to light again, the seeds germinate. Some areas with heavy seed counts in the soil can, after burning, be covered with pure dense stands of this species and when in flower the landscape is turned into fields of color.

In Britain the plant was considered a rare species in the 18th century,[7] and one confined to a few locations with damp, gravelly soils. It was misidentified as great hairy willowherb in contemporary floras. The plant's rise from local rarity to widespread weed seems to have occurred at the same time as the expansion of the railway network and the associated soil disturbance. The plant became locally known as bombweed due to its rapid colonization of bomb craters in the second world war.[7]

The flowers are visited by a wide variety of insects (the generalised pollination syndrome).[8]


Traditionally the young shoots are collected in the spring by Native American people and mixed with other greens. As the plant matures the leaves become tough and somewhat bitter. The southeast Native Americans use the stems in this stage. They are peeled and eaten raw.[9] When properly prepared soon after picking they are a good source of vitamin C and pro-vitamin A. The Dena'ina add fireweed to their dogs' food. Fireweed is also a medicine of the Upper Inlet Dena'ina, who treat pus-filled boils or cuts by placing a piece of the raw stem on the afflicted area. This is said to draw the pus out of the cut or boil and prevents a cut with pus in it from healing over too quickly.

The root can be roasted after scraping off the outside, but often tastes bitter. To mitigate this, the root is collected before the plant flowers and the brown thread in the middle removed.[citation needed]

In Alaska, candies, syrups, jellies, and even ice cream are made from fireweed. Monofloral honey made primarily from fireweed nectar has a distinctive, spiced flavor.

In Russia, its leaves were traditionally used as a tea, before the introduction of tea from China starting in the 17th Century, it was greatly valued and was exported in large quantities to Western Europe as Koporye Tea (Копорский чай), Russian Tea or Ivan Chai.[10] Fireweed leaves can undergo fermentation, much like real tea. Today, koporye tea or Ivan Chai is still commonly sold and consumed in Russia, though it is not nearly as popular as it was in Pre-Soviet Russia.

Fireweed's natural variation in ploidy has prompted its use in scientific studies of polyploidy's possible effects on adaptive potential[11] and species diversification.[12]

Because fireweed can colonize disturbed sites, even following an old oil spill, it is often used to reestablish vegetation.[citation needed]

It is also grown as an ornamental plant, some may find it too aggressive in that context. A white form, C. angustolium 'Album' is listed by the Royal Horticultural Society[13]

Depictions in human culture[edit]

Fireweed is the floral emblem of Yukon.

Rosebay Willowherb was voted the County flower of London in 2002 following a poll by the wild plant conservation charity Plantlife.[14]


  1. ^ ROM Field Guide to Wildflowers of Ontario, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto:McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 2004.
  2. ^ "BSBI List 2007". Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland. Archived from the original (xls) on 2015-01-25. Retrieved 2014-10-17. 
  3. ^ a b Warren L. Wagner; Peter C. Hoch & Peter H. Raven (2007). Revised classification of the Onagraceae. Systematic Botany Monographs. 83. American Society of Plant Taxonomists. pp. 1–243. hdl:10088/7611. ISBN 978-0-912861-83-8. 
  4. ^ Oxford English Dictionary
  5. ^ Poland, John; Clement, Eric J. (2009). The vegetative key to the British flora. Southampton, U.K.: John Poland and BSBI. ISBN 978-0-9560144-0-5. 
  6. ^ Ronse De Craene, Louis P. (2010-02-04). Floral Diagrams: An Aid to Understanding Flower Morphology and Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 209. ISBN 978-0-521-49346-8. 
  7. ^ a b Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey, ISBN 978-1-85619-377-1
  8. ^ Van Der Kooi, C. J.; Pen, I.; Staal, M.; Stavenga, D. G.; Elzenga, J. T. M. (2016). "Competition for pollinators and intra-communal spectral dissimilarity of flowers". Plant Biology. 18 (1): 56–62. doi:10.1111/plb.12328. 
  9. ^ "Species: Chamerion angustifolium". Fire Effects Information System. 
  10. ^ "Ivan Chai". REALS - Resilient and Ecological Approaches for Living Sustainably. Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  11. ^ Martin, Sara L.; Husband, Brian C. (1 March 2013). "Adaptation of diploid and tetraploid Chamerion angustifolium to elevation but not local environment". Evolution. 67 (6): 1780–1791. doi:10.1111/evo.12065. PMID 23730769. 
  12. ^ Husband, Brian C. "University of Guelph Department of Integrative Biology, Dr. Brian C. Husband". Retrieved 24 April 2013. 
  13. ^ "Royal Horticultural Society: Chamaenerion angustifolium 'Album'". Retrieved 23 February 2017. 
  14. ^ County Flowers page

External links[edit]