How to Harvest and Use Fireweed Shoots

Fireweed After the Fire

After the Fire: Destruction Bay, Yukon Territories, Canada/Photograph by Teeny Metcalfe

Fireweed shoot season is upon Southcentral Alaska.

Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) grows along Alaska’s roadways and waste areas (and throughout North America as far south as California in the west and the Carolinas in the east). Spreading rapidly on underground runners, fireweed is one of the first plants to reestablish itself after forest fires.

Fireweed’s brilliant magenta flowers brighten Alaska’s summer landscape and, in the kitchen, are an attractive salad garnish. The flowers are also the source of fireweed honey, a popular Alaskan sweetener.

Fireweed Shoots

In spring, when fireweed first emerges from the ground, its shoots are edible and similar to wild asparagus. As they grow, fireweed stalks remain edible in the sense they aren’t harmful to humans but, for me, become unacceptably bitter. The larger the shoots and the more developed the leaves, the more bitter they taste.

Fireweed grows rapidly during Alaska’s long summer days; today, from sunrise to sunset, we had 18 hours of daylight. As a result, the season for harvesting fireweed shoots is very short (only a few more days now).

Fireweed Grows on Runners

The sweetest fireweed shoots are those cut when the leaves are still reddish. The blanched, underground portion is the sweetest part of the shoots, so I slip the knife several inches underground to harvest fireweed.

The amount of bitterness in fireweed shoots varies unpredictably. In Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, the Northwest (Alaska Northwest Books 2003), the best available book on wild Northern edibles, Janice Schofield says, “Soil conditions affect flavor; I’ve found spring shoots rang[ing] from mild to quite bitter.”

After harvesting, I taste the shoots to determine their degree of bitterness. If they’re very sweet, the shoots may be eaten raw. If they are more bitter than I like, I blanch them in boiling salted water before using them in recipes.

Fireweed shoots can be used in lieu of asparagus in most recipes, on their own or mixed with other vegetables in a salad, added to soups, and in any dish that calls for cooked greens. If you’re lucky enough to harvest an abundance of fireweed shoots, blanch and freeze them for winter use.

UPDATE: In a comment, Mariana from History of Greek Food pointed out that Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) is “found in the higher elevations of the Rhodope Mountains” where the shoots and leaves are eaten boiled. Mariana noted its Latin name is from the Greek words epi (on) and lovos (pod) and “refers to the way the flower sits on top of a long ovary, which later becomes a thin seed pod.” She says the adjective angustifolium means “with narrow leaves.” In Greek, Fireweed is called kafsokxyla (καυσόξυλα) and, in Bulgarian, Tesnolistna varbovka (Теснолистна върбовка).

Coming Soon: I just checked the woods and, as of today, the Devil’s Club is ripe for picking.)

UPDATE: My post on harvesting and preparing Devil’s Club is here.

Be sure to check out the recipes mentioned in this post:

 

18 Responses to How to Harvest and Use Fireweed Shoots

  1. Sam Sotiropoulos says:

    Fireweed, huh? I thought only natives ate this stuff… I guess I was wrong! Is it a popular foodstuff in Alaska? I have never eaten it myself.

  2. Very interesting, haven’t heard of this.

  3. You amaze me, I’ve never heard of fireweed. That definitely looks like an omelette that I could enjoy.

  4. Hunter Angler Gardener Cook says:

    Pretty cool! I love wild edibles, and I never get tired of learning about another region’s stuff…

  5. I love this foraging-talk! I’m familiar with fireweed, and I vaguely remember reading about it being “edible”, but I know I’ve never read about what you might call culinary uses. It’s too late in the year for it here in California, but I’ll keep this in mind for next year. Thanks, Laurie!

  6. MEDITERRANEAN KIWI says:

    this wild green looks pretty amazing laurie – i am in awe of what a place like alaska can offer to its people. wonderful post, it made for a good read. i await that devils club post with great eagerness. 18 hours of sunlight is also pretty amazing – what time does it get dark in the ‘evening’?

  7. I’ve never heard of fireweed either. This is very interesting and I like the use you made of it.

  8. Mariana Kavroulaki says:

    Epilobium angustifolium is also found in the higher elevations of Rhodopi mountains. I know that the young shoots and leaves are eaten boiled, however I have never seen the plant. The Botanical Latin name is from Greek words epi = on + lovos = pod and refers to the way flower sits on top of a long ovary, which later becomes a thin seed pod. The specific adjective angustifolium means ‘with narrow leaves.’

  9. Sam, I’d say the practice of foraging wild greens is practised less and less, world wide. I picked up the habit in Greece and continue it in Alaska. You should try some fireweed next spring!

    Kalyn, and you’re hard to stump!

    Cheryl, like I mentioned to Sam, I learned about foraging for wild greens in Greece and realized I could do it just as easily in Alaska. I enjoy gathering them – plus, wild greens are very good for you.

    Hunter, I feel exactly the same way! But there’s fireweed in California – not sure where exactly you are – so you might be able to find some next spring.

    LuLU – foraging R us.

    Maria, the sun is now rising a little before 5 am and setting around 11 pm. Of course, there still is some light after the sun goes down.

    Ivy, thanks!

    Mariana, that is really very interesting – I had no idea that fireweed grew in Greece and the etymology is also interesting. Do you know the Greek name for it??

  10. Suganya says:

    Devil’s club, Fireweed? I can’t wait to finish rest of your posts (that I missed these past weeks) to see what else you’ve got.

  11. Mariana Kavroulaki says:

    Fireweed’s Greek name is epilovo. Local huntsmen know it well and harvest it for boiled salads or add it to tsigariasta horta.

  12. Suganya – glad to be keeping you guessing!

    Thanks Mariana- I also found it called καυσόξυλα: http://world.mongabay.com/greek/travel/07_08_30/p16256p.html

  13. I’ve never heard of fireweed shoots but I am really enjoying the picture of the omelete packed to the gills with the mysterious plant. Being an an adventurous person, I wouldn’t hesitate to give this a try.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Grows in Northern Illinois, both in burn zones, and arbitrarily through the forest and roadsides.
    Good spinach replacement, as a vegetable with current food prices, makes a tasty salad; Jelly and Honey recipes are great. the leaves are available at least 9months of the year here, I could save big on groceries… Heart smart foods are at a premium up here.

  15. ChadHaynesFood.com says:

    I may have to test this one.

  16. Thanks for the good article. I picked dandelion greens to garnish plates at our Gustavus Inn nite for the community tomorrow. I might try to pickle some fireweed shoots for bar snacks! It’s still ok to harvest here. A cold May has the dandelion shoot perfect right now.

    • The bar snacks sound interesting; I’d be interested to know how they came out. I’m planning on trying out pickled devils club in a bloody Mary this year.

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