Fireweed is one of the most recognizable plants of the north. Fireweed is a tall herb in the evening primrose family (Onagraceae) with a spike of bright pink flowers, found along roadsides, occurring widely in meadows, floodplains, around animal burrows and in burned areas. The leafy stems arise from a woody rhizome-like rootstock, up to 2 meters tall. Leaves are alternate, simple, lanceolate, entire-margined, glabrous and distinctly veined, 5-20 cm long. The inflorescence is a dense spike of many perfect 4-petalled pink to magenta flowers. Petals are 10-12 mm long, alternating with narrow dark pink sepals, 7-16 mm long. The lower flowers open first, and develop into fruit as the topmost flowers blossom. The fruit is a stalked, elongate dehiscentcapsule. Seeds have a tuft of silky hair to aid in wind dissemination. The closely related dwarf fireweed (Chamerion latifolium) has similar flowers, but is much smaller and without the many-flowered spike, found growing on gravelly terraces. Many residents of Alaska use fireweed stalks to track the progress of summer, because the flowers open sequentially from the bottom of the spike upwards over a period of many weeks. Once the top-most flowers are blooming, our brief northern summer is nearing its end.
Flowering begins in early summer and continues to August.
Chamerion angustifolium is insect pollinated, most likely by flies, bees and wasps. This species is not capable of self-pollination and the pollen is typically produced before the stigma opens. Seed production is prolific and seeds have a tuft of hairs to aid in wind dispersal. Seeds require bare mineral soil and full sun to germinate, which enables it to readily colonize disturbed areas particularly burns, road cuts and waste areas. C. angustifolium also readily reproduces vegetatively, spreading by rhizomes underground.
Young Chamerion angustifolium stem and leaves are edible, either raw or cooked. Roots can be eaten raw or cooked, or dried and ground in a flour. Flowers and flower buds can be eaten raw or cooked. Flowers are often made into a jelly. When abundant, C. angustifolium can provide beekeepers with honey. C. angustifolium has also been used traditionally medicinally in a variety of forms such as a tea, infusion or topical ointment. The Alutiiq used a tea for constipation or to stimulate milk production (Birket-Smith in Garibaldi 1999) or a poultice of roots was placed on boils (Wennekens 1985 in Garibaldi 1999). The Dena'ina used stems for treatment of boils (Kari 1995). Some Yup'ik boiled leaves in a tea as use in stomach troubles (Garibaldi 1999). C. angustifolium has been used for rehabilitation of mined and disturbed land. This species is an important food source for a variety of ungulate and small mammal species.
Chamerion angustifolium has a widespread circumpolar distribution. In North America, it ranges from Alaska into all the Canadian provinces and most of the continental US except the southeastern states and Texas. It is common and widespread in Alaska. In the park, this species occurs commonly in many habitats on both sides of the Alaska Range crest.
E. angustifolium grows at elevations from 83 m to 1470 m, with an average plot elevation of 702 m. This species strongly prefers south facing slopes. It seems to prefer moderate to steep slope with an average plot slope of 11 degrees.