|Photo by Dawn Endico|
This is a "pioneer species," one that comes in after disturbance and paves the way for others. As the name implies, fireweed especially thrives after a burn, but it's also one of the first settlers in areas cleared by a bulldozer or avalanche--or volcanic eruption.
Following the May 18, 1980 eruption at Mount St. Helens, fireweed was one of the first plants to show up. When I worked as a naturalist there, just five years after the big blast, snowy white seeds of the plant billowed through the air like thousands of summer snowflakes.
|Seed pods at bottom, flowers in middle,|
buds at top.
© Copyright David Baird and licensed for reuse
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One of the visitors to St. Helens told me he associated the plant with his military days in World War II. He'd been stationed in London after it had been bombed and burned, and saw acres and acres of blooming fireweed. He recalled it as a lovely brightness in the dark aftermath of war.
In the summer, each plant displays buds, flowers, and seedpods simultaneously. Fireweed opens its flowers successively, starting at the bottom. Once these first, lower flowers have been pollinated, the blooms develop into long, slender seed cases. Meanwhile, the upper flowers continue to open successively and be pollinated. The seed cases eventually dry and spilt open lengthwise into four thin strips that curl backward, releasing hundreds of seeds on silky white tufts.
Its ability to quickly colonize via those floating seeds earns fireweed strong associations for some of us. I will always remember the startling purple/pink in the gray volcanic landscape; after 45 years, the WWII vet still recalled a bombed-out Europe; and chances are, the residents of Colorado Springs will come to associate fireweed with the return of life after the devastating fires of 2012.