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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Aug 19


Posted on August 19, 2016 at 8:46 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

While driving through the Barriere region north of Kamloops in British Columbia a few weeks ago, it was difficult not to notice large stands of vibrant pink flowers towering in areas void of most other vegetation. These beauties appeared in land that had been ravaged by fire in 2003. They continued to catch my eye as we traversed up the mountain to the lodge where we stayed for our fishing expedition.

I made a mental note to ask my friends and traveling companions, who live in the B.C. area, what the name of the captivating flower might be. They both spouted it was fireweed, whereupon this plant geek asked for a botanical name. My friend Rick, being a fish geek (actually with a doctorate in oceanography) quickly responded with jargon that I am now certain was the Latin name for some fish found in Micronesia or other foreign waters.

Fireweed at the Lake credit
 Fireweed at the lake
(Photo by Dr. Rick Tegeler)

As we fished and hiked, this botanical wonder continued to present itself. Sometimes we would spot it along the lakeside, and other times in desolate arid regions. We even found a flowering plant atop the bluff that my grandson Tim and I climbed one day, exceeding an elevation of 5,000 feet. The plant grew in sunny areas as well as shady spots, in wet and dry locations, and in rocky soil as well as the rich humus of the forest floor. It did not conform to traditional growing conditions that I could mentally key.

The remote location of the lodge left me without internet service and a longing to know more—specifically, the real name of this plant. Upon my return to civilization, I immediately looked it up. My friends also sent links confirming they had not made up this name and provided some history of the plant for me as well. The name I had been seeking is Chamerion angustifolium, a.k.a. fireweed.

Fireweed on the bluff
 Fireweed on the bluff
It is known by that common name as it tends to move into an area destroyed by fire. This perennial grows easily from seed and surprisingly is part of the evening primrose family. As noted, it is tolerant of many conditions. The leaves are high in vitamins A and C and therefore used to make teas, jams, jellies, and zesty honey. In the fall, the plant produces a fluffy filament containing a vast number of seeds that are scattered throughout the area. Native Americans once collected this fluffy material to weave into fiber.

As I learned more about fireweed, my concern was that it might be classified as invasive. A visit to the California Invasive Plant Council website confirmed it is not listed as such, although further research suggested it is prudent to keep an eye on it in the garden.

Current news of yet another fire in Lake County reminded me of the devastation of losing our cabin in the mountains there last September. We plan to rebuild, and rebuilding for me includes seeing new growth. Might this be a spot of sunshine now void of plants? Perhaps my granddaughters might venture into brewing some fireweed tea? It seems to be a nice water-conserving plant among other wonderful traits! Why not?


Anonymous User
August 19, 2016 at 6:23 PM
Charlene, I do appreciate your articles. You are such an expert iand I admire all the useful information. Please DO NOT PLANT FIREWEED ON YOUR BURNED OVER LAND. Your land will heal itself beautifully, as many "fire-followers", both annual and perennial, are indigenous Calif. natives. There are dormant seeds waiting for a chance to thrive in expanded light and more fertile, ash-improved soil. In the last 3 years we have observed the breathtaking response of the dormant seeds in the burned area between Pope Valley and Middletown in NE Napa County.. Especially lovely this spring, 3 years after the fire, and after more normal winter rain, the show was terrific. The first year after the fire, shrubs began growing at the bases of manzanitas, toyon, coffee berry, and many others, and were knee-high+ by the following spring. Brilliant green contrasted with the blackened trees and brush skeletons. New plants receive more light without the overgrowth of the tall things that burned. The ash somehow fertilizes the soil, and spring wildflowers were robust , in wide colorful patches. I'm glad you can rebuild. Those dear places are full of rich memories of family and friends. We have a family cabin that was threatened with the above-mentioned fire, but luckily escaped the conflagration. There is a natural system here at work, and we humans tend to want to fix something that does not need fixing. Please be patient; watch for sprouting fire- followers after rains begin, and trust in the natural pattern that has evolved. If there were many areas that had been cultivated around your cottage, they might not bear seeds. But I would be really cautious about sowing fireweed there and threatening the survival and spread of our exceptional California natives. Fireweed does grow in Calif, tho not so profusely as in BC and damper climes. Alice Bachelder
Anonymous User
August 22, 2016 at 9:11 AM
Hi Alice. Thanks for your heart felt comments. Our cabin sat in the midst of several heavily wooded acres on the Bogg Mountain side. Fortunately, many oaks did survive the fire as well as some manzanita so the ground could be far worse than found in other areas. I have not been back this year to see the outcome of winter rains affect at the site. I can only hope some of the vegetation will recuperate from the devastation of fire as I witnessed working in the Mt. Vision Fire. My intention is not to replant in the forested area, but to add spots of color around the soon-to-be-built structures as they go up. The cabin has always been void of colorful native wildflowers. Believe me, I will add poppies and research other indigenous wildflowers of that region also. Sincerely, Charlene

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