U.S.A., Washington State. USDA zone 8a. Sunset climate zone 5

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Treasured Weed

There is a plant whose name is known to all Russians. I've heard that name since I was a child. It's in books, legends, fairy tales, etc. Shame on me, but I've never seen it or known how it looks. The plant is called Ivan-Chai, which literally means Ivan Tea. Its leaves can undergo fermentation, like real tea. In Russia, they are often used as a tea substitute and were at one time even exported. In Western Europe, it is known as Kapor tea.
During our recent trip to Alaska, I was reading a book about Alaska by the Russian journalist Vasily Peskov who has been honored with the Global 500 award (BTW, what a wonderful book! I learned tons of interesting facts from it!). He mentioned that Ivan-Chai grows extensively in this state.

I thought: legendary Russian herb grows in Alaska? This is my chance to see how Ivan-Chai looks! There were lots of wild flowers around, including white-headed Cow Parsnip, blue Lupins, perennial geraniums and unknown to me tall plants with pretty purple flowers.
This is not IT!

At the same time, a Russian blogger, Voldemar, published a post about Ivan-Chai ( Looking at his picture, I realized that the Alaskan tall plant with purple blooms and the legendary Russian plant were the same!

Alaskan Fireweed is Russian Ivan-Chai! Great, Tatyana. You needed to come to Alaska to learn how the legendary Russian plant looks. But wait! Looking at the Fireweed/Ivan-Chai, I realized that it grows in my own backyard. Six years ago, when we moved from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, I asked my neighbor what were those very tall skinny plants with attractive bright purple blooms. She just waved off my question and commented: "Just a weed!".
Well, now I know what a treasure I have in my garden!

Fireweed or (mainly in Britain) Rosebay Willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium) is a perennial herbaceous plant in the willowherb family Onagraceae. It is native throughout the temperate Northern Hemisphere.

Fireweed gets its name because it quickly invades disturbed areas, such as those created after fires (like on the picture below). Frequently confused with purple loosestrife, fireweed has a very different looking flower, although from a distance or driving down the highway it can be hard to tell the two apart.

The young shoots of the Fireweed were often collected in the spring by Native American people and mixed with other greens. They are best when young and tender; as the plant matures the leaves become tough and somewhat bitter. The southeast Native Americans use the stems in the stage. They are peeled and eaten raw. When properly prepared soon after picking they are a good source of vitamin Cand pro-vitamin A. The Dena'ina add fireweed to their dogs' food. Fireweed is also a medicine of the Upper Inlet Dena'ina, who treat pus-filled boils or cuts by placing a piece of the raw stem on the afflicted area. This is said to draw the pus out of the cut or boil and prevents a cut with pus in it from healing over too quickly.

Do you see the tall plants with pretty white flowers? It's Cow Parsnip
(post . This year, we saw it EVERYWHERE! It is scary!

The root of the Fireweed can be roasted after scraping off the outside, but often tastes bitter. To mitigate this, collect the root before the plant flowers and remove the brown thread in the middle.
In Alaska, candies, syrups, jellies, and even ice creamare made from fireweed. Monofloral honey made primarily from fireweed nectar has a distinctive, spiced flavor.

 Because fireweed can colonize disturbed sites, even following an old oil spill, it is often used to reestablish vegetation. It grows in (and is native to) a variety of temperate to arctic ecosystems. Be aware: although it is also grown as an ornamental plant, some may find it too aggressive in that context.

Here, Fireweed is on the left
Fireweed information is borrowed from Wikipedia.

Dave ( has the great idea about the Worst Weed Wednesday. Fireweed might be the worst weed for some gardeners, but for me, it's probably the best weed! I'll tell you in future if I managed to make a tea from it.
P.S. Thank you Sue Swift , for including the following fact in your comment: Rosebay Willowherb is a wild flower emblem of London. After the Second World War, drifts of purple grew on its bomb sites. Also, I need to mention that this plant is the Yukon's floral emblem.


  1. That is a pretty cool weed! I wouldn't mind having some of it around here but it is probably in a way different zone! Beautiful pictures!

  2. Those are some beautiful pictures. I've seen some tall skinny pink "weeds" around here, I wonder if they could be related to the fireweed?
    Seeing your Alaska pictures makes me want to visit there even more than I already wanted to.

  3. It sure is a pretty 'weed'. My sister, who lives in Maine, grows it in her neck of the woods. She posted on it a while back. I had never heard of it and haven't seen it here in the south but I sure would love to! It is awesome. It is very interesting to know the history and congrats on having it in your own backyard.

  4. Таня! Любуюсь! И ощущаю!
    Какая же вдохновляющая польза от красоты, и, по-прежнему, наука: всё, необходимое душе и телу, рядом и такое простое...

  5. Alaska is so beautiful in summmer. I really liked the mountain scenery. Looks very cooling, so different from the temperature at my home. Now very hot season. Fireweed is really a very useful plant to have. Their can brighten up any space.

  6. Tatayana .. You just reminded me that I planted this a couple of years ago .. but it hasn't returned for some reason .. I swear the tag said it was in our zone .. could be the brain was snoozing on that one ? : )
    Beautiful pictures !

  7. It may be considered a weed but it is sure petty. I would enjoy them in my garden.Your pictures are so gorgeous.

  8. You have shared some gorgeous photos of a beautiful weed. Interesting all the uses by Native Americans. thanks for sharing this information and the great views with all of us.

  9. Рад, что на сон грядущий опять заглянул к тебе. Шикарные фотографии! Я просто насладился и напоил душеньку нектаром. Не даром люди заражаются от них, и появляется желание побывать в этих местах. Такие фото, приправленные чудесным рассказом, могут вызывать только положительные мысли и иметь притягательную силу. Вот.
    А Cow Parsnip, по-нашему Борщевик, и нас одолел. Его к нам завезли когда-то как силосную культуру, и с тех пор от него никакого спасу нет. Сколько людей по незнанию от него пострадало - жуть! И ничто его не берёт.
    Оцифровал сегодня ещё один старенький сюжетик, но сегодня уже сил нет выложить - завтра рано на работу бежать, но вечерком залью на ю-туб и покажу тебе.
    ... как-то нанадцать лет назад я встал в 3 часа утра в мае, чтобы снять его. В другое время суток ничего бы путного не получилось, а так вышло весьма занимательно - это вместо предисловия:-)

  10. Thank you Dave, Catherine, Tina, Natasha, Autumn Belle, Joy, Lona, Janet, Voldemar! I hope you can visit Alaska one day. It's not so far! Pink waves of the Fireweed were everywhere: on the hills, at the water (fresh and salty), along the roads and even close to the glaciers. I don't know about other parts of Alaska, but Kenai Peninsula has beautiful wild flowers. I have a question: do the pictures look OK on your computers? They look fine for me, but when I used another computer, they looked awfully dark. Please, tell me. Thanks again for your kind comments!

  11. That is indeed a beautiful weed! Can't wait to hear how you make tea from it. I love tea!

  12. It is a beautiful weed Tatyana, I would not mind having it in my garden too and what a bonus to be able to make tea from it.


  13. What an incredibly beautiful area! Your photos are so wonderful, I could walk right into any one of them. I would LOVE to visit Alaska. The fireweed does look a lot like purple loosestrife...both pretty.

  14. What interesting history and facts about fireweed. I think it's a beautiful plant, but how can something as useful, pretty, and interesting as fireweed be called a weed? I like how you had to find it in Alaska, lol.

  15. Flowers oh so pretty.
    Landscape with flowers very impressive!!!

    I think anything that grows wild may be considered a weed.
    Your fireweed is like a treasure... pretty,old and has sentimental value.

    Great trip,love the tour !

  16. Great post. Its a weed over here but I love the flowers. Given that Alaska was once joined to Russia I guess the flora would be related.

  17. Oh Tatyana, what a fantastic story about your homeland tea plant! I loved seeing the photos and that last one with the water and boats is amazing. Well done. And I want that fireweed in my garden. :-)

  18. One gardener's weed is another's treasured plant. :)

  19. Hello and thank you Robin, Cathy, Nancy, Meredith, Patsi, Hermes, Frances, Racquel! I'm so happy that fellow gardeners liked fireweed and my story! Should I try to collect some seeds from the plants on the back of my garden (if it's not late alreaady)? Hermes, they found out that Asia and N.America were connected by land long-long ago. That is why they have the same plants and animals.Some groups of native people speak the same language!I wish they translated the V.Peskov book about Alaska from Russian to English, it has the most interesting facts!

  20. Tatyana what a stunning collection of landscape and wildflower pictures.

    I know 'Willow herb' in France and UK, but those wild scenes are simply the best.

    I've heard that willowherb can have a detrimental effect on Fuchsias mind.

  21. I think Fireweed is beautiful too. I had no idea of its importance in Russian history and folklore. Very interesting post!

    Gorgeous pictures too of course. They're just amazing.

  22. Well its a pretty weed....and techinically....what makes a "weed" a "weed"?????????

  23. Super photos - and really interesting about the Rosebay willowherb. Did you know it's the emblem flower of London? I tried to grow it once - and failed miserably!

  24. How very interesting! I had no idea!

    Great photos, I want to go to Alaska too...

  25. Hi Tatyana~~ I've toyed with the idea of growing Fireweed. I love tall, spiky flowers and the color is divine. I guess it's the WEED part that scares me. I grow Loosestrife and even though it gets a bad rap, it has never been aggressive in my garden.

    Your photos are astounding. What a beautiful site. I should share these with a friend of mine who lived in Alaska for several years. [She didn't want to leave.]

    I suppose discovering that the source of Ivan-Chai was growing in your garden all along was what Oprah calls a "full circle moment." You have such an interesting life, Tatyana. I hope you're staying cool.

  26. Hi Tatyana,

    I just replied to your comment on my blog, thanks for identifying the mysterious stranger! And I realized I forgot to answer the Alaska question.

    We'd love to drive the Alaska highway, so we'll likely drive up to Dawson Creek in BC, where it starts and head on north. It's supposed to be a spectacular drive, especially in the fall. We don't have anyplace special to visit up there, so we'll just go wherever the road takes us - the best kind of road trips. :)

  27. A beautiful weed:) Your photos and story are wonderful!

  28. Such beautiful photos! Everyone's definition of a "weed" seems to differ; this is one of the most beautiful weeds I've seen! Thanks for such an interesting and informative post.

  29. Hi Tatyana, wonderful pictures and a very thorough information about your "favourite weed." Wildflowers are sometimes just called a weed! They have to look after themselves, are not pampered and where they were lucky to find the condition to grow they would do it in profusion to propagate further as quickly as possible which is all to it in nature. If plants are not allowed to do this they die out and disappear for ever.

  30. Just come back from London, where we saw rosebay willow herb from the train windows. Who knew it was called Ivan tea in Russia? Don't expect a London plant to turn up so far north as Alaska!

  31. Oh my word...these leave me speechless! What gorgeous flowers and scenery! Thanks for sharing! Now I'm going to celebrate with some tea!

  32. Thank goodness Mother Nature's garden is full of weeds.

    I haven't a chance to head into the Adirondacks to see if the huge stands I saw last year came back. As you mentioned areas with disturbed soil can explode with Fireweed so there were miles of them where new power lines were put in along the road. I wanted to try making some jelly - well not me really but I have a friend who would.

  33. Fascinating stuff! Yes we have it all over the place here too. A few years ago I visited Mount St Helens. It grows all over there among the burnt trees!

  34. Hi Tatanya - Fascinating post, great pics, fun subject. I'd love to see a photo of fireweed next to one of purple loosestrife. One, a useful native; the other, a noxious pest! Good luck with your tea-making. Ivan-Chai, sounds so exotic and delicious!

  35. Tatyana,

    I fell in love with fireweed when our family lived for a while in Yellowknife. It's very pretty when it colonizes in large swafts of pinky mauve, and close up the individual florets are interesting to look at. As a kid, I enjoyed the mystery of how it knew to grow after a fire. The "weed" in its name never clicked as a Weed.

    The Latin name, Epilobium, is fun to roll around in the mouth, and I appreciate its beauty as a garden flower. However to me fireweed will always seem most magical when left to roam in the wild.

    Thanks for the lovely pictures and the new layers of history and myth attached to one of my favourite flowers. Hope you had a great time in Alaska.

  36. Tatanya, what an interesting and beautiful post! Fireweed grow like crazy in the Rockies,Ive seen huge colonies after areas have experienced forest fires, I love the Russian connection with it...I've tried to grow it here, but it's too hot and humid for it. B

  37. I've always loved seeing fireweed in the mountains around here. I hear the white form is not so invasive.

  38. Finally a picture of a Fireweed that I had asked Sorry Gardener to take.No wonder she nurtured it thinking it was a planned flower. It's beautiful! Wish I had some. Very interesting post. Thank you.

  39. Tatyana, this is a lovely post; fascinating and with beautiful pics! And as I progressed I thought: "That is Rosebay Willowherb" and voila! It was! I sooooo nearly picked seed in the UK many years ago, but suspected that in our kinder climate it might take off and become a terrible weed! After reading what you say, my guess is it will be too warm here, and it will have a short season before shrivelling and dying in the sun. I could have done it... Jack at

  40. AnonymousMay 16, 2012

    Hello , did you ever make the tea? I live in Juneau and may try myself.


    1. Hi Erica! I haven't tried to make tea myself. I bought 'fireweed tea' once from one lady in Alaska, but it wasn't really tea, there were just dry leaves. One Russian blogger published a post about his way to make fireweed tea, but it's pretty long process, and I doubt that I want to do that. Best Regards,

    2. That is tea at it's very best!! The dried leaves. We have gotten so used to processed packaged teas that the true teas are not realized!! Teas are fabulous fresh picked and dried. Maybe if it was just Fireweed you sampled it needed some other fresh and healthy herbs with it to liven the taste!! I have not sampled fireweed myself..yet that is. But, that will change thanks to you Asta Jankuniene.
      Sincerely, Robin( Tea Grower and Maker):)


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