We spent the last week of the summer in Kootenay National Park, on the traditional and unceded territories of the Ktunaxa Nation and Secwe̓pemc peoples. It was a welcome break and we were lucky to avoid crowds and smoky skies. Wildflower ‘season’ was long over and Fall colour was a way off except for a few turning bunchberry leaves. The only colour still faintly visible on the mountain slopes was painted on by the magenta seed pods and occasional residual bloom of Chamaenerion angustifolium, commonly known here as fireweed.
Paying attention to fireweed, a herbaceous perennial, and the abundance of tiny seeds that emerge with fine, silky hair to disperse into the wind when their long seed pods curl open, brought to mind two themes. One is around fire management and wildfires, and the other is about how we classify plants into categories such as ‘weeds’ and ‘flowers’. Of course, the two themes are connected when you zoom out and see ecologically. The bigger picture is about how we see, come to know, and ultimately care about, our environment(s) and the health of the planet.
The very idea of weeds is an anthropocentric one; the definition being a product of the social construction of nature. There is a spectrum of what are considered weeds and what humans – individually or societally - are willing to tolerate or even value in the landscapes.
If you type ‘weeds’ into your Google search bar, your screen will be filled with hundreds of results waxing lyrical about the best way to rid your lawns (another socially-constructed idea; an invention as a status symbol of European aristocracy), patios and fields of these undesirable plants. Weeds seem to come under the general umbrella of pests – unwelcomed and unwanted - which implies that they should be ‘controlled’ or managed in some way usually with great expense to the wider ecosystem.
Fireweed is endemic to much of the Northern Hemisphere growing in large swathes of boreal forests and grasslands, and like many other species of plants which have come to be thought of as weeds, tends to be abundant on recently disturbed ground. As with other weeds, such as dandelions and stinging nettles, fireweed is culturally important to many different peoples and is both edible and medicinal. Fireweed has come to be known by this name due to how quickly it establishes itself on barren and charred ground after a fire and, in ecological circles, is considered an indicator species of seral succession. Which means that its presence demonstrates that ecological succession is in an intermediate stage, as a community of species becomes established.
For so many decades, settlers in North America - having travelled predominantly from Europe where forests had already been largely decimated – feared fire and either ignored or repudiated the heeding advice of Traditional Knowledge keepers. Fire was intentionally suppressed and cultural burning was discouraged or banned in an attempt to remove ceremony and prevent Indigenous communities practising culture. For many First Nations communities, cultural burning isn’t just about fire management as is typical with prescribed burns, but about strengthening the biodiversity, growth and productivity of certain species; improving the whole and the health of a landscape. Reading, observing, knowing, the details of a landscape and the behaviours of all those species who share it, tells a community when it is time to consider a burn.
Fireweed teaches us about success in the face of adversity; about resilience. What other wisdom do these plants have to share? I find there is so much hope, joy and beauty in these scorched forests and grasslands, so much anticipation of what is to come.