Backyard Fireweed

fireweed in calgary

Backyard Fireweed

We had some lovely fireweed growing beside the deck this month. And we didn’t even need to burn any grass to get it. I’m not sure why this lover of scorched earth decided to sprout gratuitously in our undisturbed backyard, but the honey plants shot up two metres (six feet), flowered for a month, and were often covered with bees. Some people would mow it down as a nuisance – a noxious weed – but it is a pretty flower and blooms for weeks. As a honey plant, fireweed is a fickle nectar-producer. It quickly colonizes forest areas that have suffered fires, sprouting up everywhere and sometimes covering dozens of square kilometres. Beekeepers occasionally follow these fires (which they didn’t start, honestly) and plant apiaries among the flowers. Sometimes they make a hundred pounds of honey (per hive); more often, they make a hundred pounds of honey (per bee yard). It is quite a chore to chase fireweed for honey. It might do well for a year or two following a forest fire, but then the density decreases as the weed is crowded out by other, less noble, species. Beekeepers in western Canada and Northwest USA have to scout for locations, move the bees perhaps hundreds of kilometres/miles, and since fireweed is most profuse in remote forest regions, they often need to construct sturdy fences to keep bears out of their lives.

I’ve seen fireweed honey at specialty honey shops in the west. Never tasted it, but in all the literature, it is described as having a ‘distinctive flavour’. Of course, so does broccoli. The typical colour is ‘white’ – a technical, legal description of the darkness of honey. Some of the fireweed honey I’ve seen was ‘dark amber’ so I’m not sure it was what it was supposed to be. Probably wasn’t. Or if it really was fireweed, perhaps it was over-heated during bottling. If you’d like to see a real live hobby bee business making fireweed honey up in Canada’s Yukon, here is a video with bees and people in action, though it’s not totally clear they are extracting fireweed honey – but that’s what their movie’s title says.

By the way, fireweed is sometimes called ‘Willow Herb’ up here. That’s the encyclopedic entry made by John Lovell in his seminal 1926 tome, Honey Plants of North America,  He devotes over 2000 words describing the plant’s habitat, nectar production, and honey qualities. According to Lovell, willow herb is common throughout northern Europe, Asia, and North America. Lovell’s description: “A perennial herb, 2 to 8 feet tall, with long, lance-shaped leaves, and handsome red-purple flowers in long spike-like racemes. After forest and brush fires it springs up in great abundance, and flourishes for about three years, when other plants crowd it out.” He continues to outline fireweed’s American distribution (Labrador to North Carolina along the Appalachians; abundant in New England, northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota; ubiquitous in the northern Saskatchewan and Alberta parklands; but, “it is most abundant in British Columbia both in the mountains and on the coast”); Lovell writes that fireweed has a more northerly range than any other honey plant of first rank. (So, perhaps my idea of keeping bees on Baffin Island near the North Pole as a future retirement project is justified after all!)

Lovell describes fireweed honey as water-white to white, dense, very mild flavoured. John Lovell says production is extremely unpredictable – good colonies sometimes gathering nothing, while in other locales and other seasons, he enumerates colonies gathering 250 pounds (Northern Michigan), 100 pounds (Ottawa), and an outstanding 550 pounds from each of two hives in 1925, in New Westminster, British Columbia. I don’t know if the fireweed in my back yard in Calgary has contributed 550 pounds to any neighbour’s backlot hive, but it certainly fed a lot of bees from time to time this month. I don’t know if you can buy fireweed seeds – probably not. Maybe it’s sold as willow herb? You might find it described that way in your favourite noxious weed catalogue when searching for it next spring.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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