Sweetness and Light

Portrait of Fireweed by Heather HinamThe first blush of spring flowers has long since faded, leaving forests and fields to settle into the rich greens and sunny yellows of mid-summer. Still, the decidedly verdant palette is broken now and then by a showy splash of pink, startling against the endless green, like flame in the darkness.

These tall, fuschia spires are fireweed, nature’s phoenix, rising out of the ashes of destruction and bringing colour back to the land. They also happen to be one of my favourite flowers; but not for a reason that’s immediately obvious. They’re actually rather tasty.

Nearly 15 years ago, I was fortunate to spend some time visiting a friend in the Yukon. We had an amazing time exploring the western edge of the territory, camping out in the shadow of the Rockies in the still long days of early fall.

In the airport on the way home, I spotted it, jars of a clear pink, gleaming in the fluorescent light of the gift shop: fireweed jelly. I had to try it and after tasting its delicate, sweet flavour, I had to figure out how to make it.

Turns out, the second part of that equation was harder than I expected it to be. Over 10 years ago, the internet was not as vast and I couldn’t find a recipe anywhere. After much searching, I ended up finding what I needed in a dusty old text squirrelled away in the Winnipeg public library.  I actually found a lot of ways to cook wild edibles in that book; but most coveted was my recipe that will work for any petal-based jelly.

We’ve been blessed with an abundance of fireweed this summer in Grindstone; but I’ve been so busy with other work that I haven’t had time to go out and harvest. It’s fairly time-consuming labour. Picking the flowers is easy enough. You just need a pair of scissors, long pants and something to store the feathery spikes in. Once you get them home, the fun part starts: separating the blossoms from the stem. I usually end up spending a good hour plucking the flowers, one by one, dropping them into a bowl and setting the green bits (which are also edible) aside. By the end, your fingers will be died purple and the rest of you will be crawling with crab spiders and leaf hoppers; but it will be worth it in the end, trust me.

Once you have your blossoms, stuff as many as you can into a pint sealer jar and cover the lot with boiling water.  Let the developing tea steep for 24 hours in a dark space (to keep the sunlight from washing out the delicate colour). Strain out the now leeched-white blossoms and pour the liquid into a deep pot, adding 1 1/2 cups of sugar for every cup of tea (3 cups to a pint). Add a teaspoon of lemon juice and bring to a rolling boil, letting it go for a good minute. Add 6 oz of liquid pectic to the mix and boil hard for another minute or so. Take it off the heat and skim any foam before carefully filling sealer jars and proceed to can it according to direction.

This recipe doesn’t make much, but it’s flavour is worth it. If you’re concerned about the colour once you’ve strained out the blossoms (sometimes it can look a little brownish), you can add a tablespoon or so of strawberry juice. It won’t affect the taste, but will keep it nice and pink.

Fireweed is one of those flowers that just seems designed to bring joy wherever it grows. As suggested by its name, its rhizomic habit makes them one of the first colonizers to bring colour back to a fire-blackened forest, springing up through the ash from runners in the underlying soil.

This year, the bright blossoms brought beauty back to the devastation wrought by Manitoba Hydro after they cleared the area around their power lines of shrubs and trees in my area. As my friend, Cindy mentions in her recent post on the same subject, thanks to their tenacious rhizomes that can knit their way through the soil up to almost half a metre deep, fireweed managed to find its way into the centre of London after the city was ruined in places by World War II bombs. To me this hardy denizen of northern forests and fields is a reminder to all of us that even in the face of humanity at its ugliest and most destructive, nature always manages to find a way to bring light back to the earth.

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11 thoughts on “Sweetness and Light

  1. I was thinking: such a beautiful photo, then I spent some minutes reading everything, and that was even more rewarding. How interesting. I know this plant is edible, but I have never heard about making jam from it. I have wanted, but never yet had the occation to make jam of rose-petals. That’s too late, again, for my roses, but now I am going to try this. So exciting!! I am looking forward to this. Hope I get the time, because they are flowering now in Norway…

    • Thank you very much! I’m glad to know that the words enhanced your experience. Good luck with your jelly! If you need more detailed instructions, just let me know. A little note: once you boil it with the pectin in it, test it after a minute to see if it will coat the back of a spoon. If it doesn’t, just keep boiling. It might take a little longer.

      I hope you have fun and let me know how it goes.

  2. I’m trying something new this fall – harvesting berries of the autumn olive bush, an invasive in this part of the U.S. They are supposed to be delicious when fully ripened and can be frozen for months and not lose their taste. Can’t wait to try them!

    • That sounds neat, Jo Ann! I’ve never heard of autumn olives. We have Russian Olives (also non-native), but I can’t imagine ever making something edible out of their fruit. Let me know how it goes.

  3. Your mention of London gave me the clue – until this post I hadn’t realised the ‘fireweed’ mentioned by North American bloggers is what I know as Rosebay Willow Herb. It’s mostly counted as a weed here but is a beautiful and dramatic plant. Is it the only willow herb with culinary potential or is it just that it grows in big clumps so its petals are more easily harvested?

    • Willow herb is a term used here for a smaller cousin of fireweed that grows in more alpine regions. I don’t think most people in Manitoba give fireweed a second thought, but it’s not actively persecuted as a weed. I’m not 100% sure, but I would imagine that all willow herbs are edible. You’re right that fireweed is easier to harvest because of its abundance.

      Thanks, Lucy, for stopping by and for giving me a perspective from outside of North America.

  4. Pingback: Flowery spotlight: Fireweed. « Flowery Prose

  5. This is a lovely post, Heather, full of little jewels of information and a gorgeous image to cap it off. I’m sorry this is such a short comment, but I’m about to leave to catch a flight to London, which reminded me of reading your last paragraph a few days ago. I wanted to quickly return here and say thanks…

  6. Cleaning out my email, I discovered that this post was still there…chagrined to discover that I’ve done it again. This time, before I wrote how much I enjoyed your detailed instructions and thanked you for the mention, I went off to read about canning – something I’ve never done because I have a serious aversion to spending serious time in the kitchen. I still don’t know if I’ll ever make myself do it, but this pink concoction is certainly tempting me.

  7. Pingback: Fireweed « The Nature of the Hills

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