August 18, 2017
When I was young, I lived in many rural areas of Vancouver Island, BC Canada. I remember noticing the beautiful tall spires of purple flowers everywhere in the summer, especially along the logging roads in areas where there had been recent tree cuts. From the time I first heard the name Fireweed, it became in my mind that flower which rises out of the ashes. Actually, not a dissimilar symbolic simile to that of the lotus that springs forth from the mud.
I knew early on in my herbal education that I wanted to better know this beauty. Not only because it is so plentiful where I live, but because one of my first herbal medicine teachers introduced it to us as an under-appreciated medicine with uses utterly essential to maintaining the basis of human health – healthy digestion.
Fireweed belongs to the Primrose family in the plant kingdom. Its latin name is Chamerion angustifolium (previously known as Epilobium angustifolium). It is sometimes also referred to as great willow herb or rosebay willow herb.
Fireweed is found from coast to coast, and in both the North and South of Canada and the US. It also grows in Europe and Asia, and it flourishes in open, sunny and arid places that would otherwise stand desolate due to natural or man-made destruction, often in the form of forest fires or logging. It has even been known to carry the name bombweed due to its quick revitalization of bomb sites during WW2. Many a beautiful photograph has been taken of the surreal paint like colors of Fireweed splashed across an entire mountainside in the Northern hemisphere.
Properties and Qualities
Fireweed’s nature is a bit of a conundrum. Firstly, due to its concentration of tannins, it is a very astringent herb. Astringent medicinals cause tissues to contract and tighten, and to expel excess fluid accumulation. Astringency equates somewhat to drying. Conversely, though, Fireweed is also mucilaginous. This means that it can also have an emollient or moistening effect. Fireweed’s overall energetic quality is cooling. The combination of these properties makes Fireweed a powerful anti-inflammatory.
When we find medicines in nature that possess seemingly contradictory actions, it is a reminder of how finely the energetic qualities of all existence must be tuned. Harmonious balance of an organism is what we call health or homeostasis. Often we see modern very targeted medicinal therapies subdue specific symptoms, but in the process, create different imbalances that replace the original one.
To me, by far the most exciting and universally useful application of Fireweed is in treating certain disruptions and imbalances of what Tibetan Medicine calls the digestive fire.
Medicinal Actions and Uses
Fireweed has the following important general applications: anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and antimicrobial, antispasmodic and analgesic, vulnerary (wound healing), anti-tumor, and as mentioned above is emollient and astringent.
Fireweed has special affinities for the skin, bladder, immune system, and respiratory system. It has been used to treat a plethora of external conditions such as psoriasis, eczema, acne, burns and other wounds. Gargles of Fireweed have been used for sore throat and associated inflammations. Cooled decoctions can also be helpful for hiccoughs, whooping cough and asthma, with the anti-inflammatory, mucilaginous and antispasmodic properties all providing relief. It has also been used to treat insomnia, arthritis, headaches, hemorrhoids, chronic diarrhea, and slow hemorrhage. Fireweed has been shown in studies to have antimicrobial activity against Staphylococcus aureus, E. coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and Klebsiella pneumonia. In some of these instances, it was shown to be more effective than vancomycin or tetracycline.
To me, by far the most exciting and universally useful application of Fireweed is in treating certain disruptions and imbalances of what Tibetan Medicine calls the digestive fire. Specifically, its tonifying effects on the gut mucosa, combined with its anti-fungal nature, make it suitable for treating Candida overgrowth and helping to restore correct microbial balance to the GI system. As known in most traditional healing systems, digestive fire and gut health are what homeostasis is highly dependent upon. Traditional medicines view inadequate digestion as the physical root of all disease and imbalance.
Harvest and Types of Preparations
Harvesting Fireweed is relatively simple, and delightfully surprising when one discovers its sweet honeyed scent. Harvest when plants are in bloom. Cut stems above any bottom yellowing leaves. Lay entire stems with leaves and flowers to dry, later stripping flowers and leaves off of stem when dry, or strip leaves and flowers from the fresh plant for fresh plant preparations. Discard thick stems. Alternatively, strip leaves from the stem instead of cutting the entire stalk with flowers. Bees quite enjoy Fireweed and the flowers will continue to provide them with pollen.
Fireweed can be prepared as:
-alcoholic extract or tincture
-tea of flowers and leaves
-decoctions of root
-infused oil of leaves and flowers
Fireweed is one of those essential home apothecary herbs. It is easily accessible for wild crafting in many areas of North America and Europe and could be cultivated if desired without much fuss or effort. In fact, it is quite a common garden “weed” where I’m from. Given that it gently restores and balances the GI tract, it can stand on its own in therapeutic applications, and be a very effective adjunctive in the treatment of many imbalances.
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