Tag Archives: epilobium angustifolium

Yarrow: a quiet goddess subdues half a planet

yarrow-achillea-millefolium-Coeur-d-Alene-Idaho-by-Betsey-CrawfordLast summer, while I was enjoying the ubiquitous glories of the vast stands of fireweed stretching from the Canadian border to the heart of Alaska, I noticed something unusual. Almost always, with a stand of fireweed, were a few stems of yarrow, a white, sometimes pink flower, shaped like a flattened umbrella, with stalks of feathery leaves. Except for a stand of pink ones, whose twilit luminosity attracted me, I almost never took pictures of it, and, after weeks of this, began to be intrigued, not so much by the yarrow, but by my lack of interest in it. I take pictures of every flower I come across, why not yarrow?

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Even the fireweed is having a hard time competing with the coastal slopes of Valdez, Alaska, but the yarrow is almost invisible. You can find one in the left lower corner, and then follow a slight curve up and right for three more

Ever since we started naming them, we’ve tended to pay a lot of attention to the more beautiful, fiery goddesses, and it’s easy to see fireweed — lush, fertile, gorgeous — as the queen of her surroundings, Aphrodite cloaked in magenta. Yarrow, by contrast, is almost invisible with such a companion. Even without fireweed around, yarrow is a quiet and unassuming plant, not, to my eyes, particularly pretty, and not photogenic. Flattish circles of tiny individual flowers are hard for the camera to do justice to, and yarrow, with its lack of contrasting color and texture, is particularly challenging.

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A quiet presence in a meadow in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Kenai, Alaska

Having ignored yarrow for most of my trip north, it then kept tugging at me once I got back to California. Its official name is achillea. Why, I wondered, did Carl Linnaeus, the eighteenth-century father of botanical nomenclature, name quiet yarrow after an ancient Greek hero, known as much for rage as courage? Legend has it that Achilles used yarrow to staunch the blood of his wounded enemy-then-ally, Telephus, though yarrow itself is never mentioned in the Iliad.   But it was enough for Linnaeus, and, since yarrow leaves have traditionally been applied to the skin to stop bleeding, it’s one of the plants he could have used.

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Among fireweed leaves on a twilight walk along the road in Moose Pass, Alaska

We know it was used many millennia before theTrojan War, in twelfth century BCE , because 50,000 year old yarrow grains have been found in the tartar of Neanderthal teeth. Since yarrow has known medicinal properties, but is not known for significant nutritional value, researchers concluded that the Neanderthals were up on their available medications. Native Americans had many uses for yarrow, including steeping the leaves for a tea to lower fever, help with sleep, and settle the stomach. Its ability to heighten the effects of alcohol apparently prompted the Vikings to use it in beer specially brewed to be drunk at weddings, which gives a hair-raising slant on Viking nuptials.

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A close look at the two flowers that make up the aster family: a central disk flower and the surrounding ray flowers, looking like petals

The whole northern hemisphere could have benefited from the use of yarrow, and most likely did, since it’s native virtually everywhere north of the equator, and is a pharmacopeia in itself. Its very usefulness would have helped its spread, as travellers carried it with them. A member of the vast Asteraceae family, the flowers are formed by its family’s signature two structures — a disk floret in the center, surrounded by ray florets, looking like petals. Each quarter inch yarrow flower is clustered with many others to form a head, which branches out from a stiffly erect, rather brittle stalk covered with delicate, finely cut leaves.

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The yarrow in Alaska is Achillea millefolium, variety borealis.

All achilleas share these traits, but there are genetic variations that have allowed them to adapt to higher and lower altitudes, dryer and wetter climates, differences in available light and nutrients. Yarrow’s adaptability is helped by its intriguing genetic promiscuity. Unlike animal genes, where offspring get a pair of chromosomes, one from each parent, plants can have multiple copies of their chromosomes, a state called polyploidy. Those with four copies are tetraploids, six are hexaploids, eight are octoploids.

Animals would not mate across such a variation, but plants, and especially yarrow, do, complicating the effort to sort them into species. Experts have, at different times, classified Achillea millefolium as 40 different species, and then changed their collective minds and lumped all variations into one, retreating into the umbrella term ‘species complex.’ So most likely all the yarrow I’ve seen in my life, including the cultivars for gardens, are versions of Achillea millefolium, the second name referencing its ‘thousand leaves,’ with ‘borealis’ added as I got farther north.

northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-buds-Kenai-Wildlife-Refuge-Kenai-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordMy growing interest in a plant I spent the summer overlooking reminds me of a moving interview with the actor Dustin Hoffman on his role as Dorothy Michaels in ‘Tootsie.’ Before committing to the movie, he wanted to be sure that he could really pass as a woman, so he went to the make-up people at Columbia Pictures to see if that was possible. Once they had done their magic, he said, ‘Great, now make me beautiful,’ and was dumbfounded when they said that was the best they could do. He went home in tears at his own blindness, and was in tears recounting the story. He said he thought of himself, in that guise, as an interesting woman, but he realized that if he were to meet her at a party, he would have ignored her in preference for someone more conventionally showy, the fireweed in the crowd.

northern-yarrow-achillea-borealis-Moose-Pass-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford-3Knowing that yarrow is a determined and talented plant, adaptable to every circumstance except standing water or extreme desert, or that the leaves are full of minerals for browsers, or that my ancestors used it to lower their fevers, relieve stomach cramps, and kill bacteria in their cuts doesn’t make it any prettier than I found it last summer, but it makes that facile judgement seem silly. It changes the way it looks to me, because my experience of it is richer, layered, connecting me to its energies in a way that relying on its surface charms had not. It brings me into the long history we humans have shared with it, and then further and further back into the tens of millions of years it bloomed on this planet before beings like me were here to be aware of it. Eons of blowing in the wind, soaking up the rain, creating a banquet of food and medicine from the sunlight falling on its leaves and the minerals seeping into its roots. This is how we release all bias. Knowledge is not only power, it’s love.

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Ashes to petals: wildfire and rebirth

wildfire-Dalton-Highway-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordOn the way north last summer we were stopped by a wildfire in British Columbia. It had jumped Route 97, and the RV park where we spent the night slowly filled with people who had kept driving and been turned back. The manager warned us that we might be roused from sleep and asked to evacuate further south, but late the next morning we were allowed to drive through, still in a fog of smoke. I’d never seen a forest right after a fire. The pitch black trunks were stark along the road, grayer farther back, where the dense haze softened them. Smoke rose slowly from the still smoldering black ground, rough with burned plants. Nothing green was left. I was longing to stop for a picture, but we were the first in line after the pilot car guiding us, there to keep crazy people from stopping in a still smoldering fire to take pictures. But that vertical black and shifting gray landscape was unforgettable.

wildfire-Kenai-Wildlife-Refuge-Alaska-by-Betsey-CrawfordMany people associate wildfire with devastation, and it was easy to see why, driving through that suddenly barren and spooky landscape. The power of a forest or wildland fire can be terrifying, the destruction incomprehensible. Easy, also, to see why earlier forest service personnel felt that as many fires should be fought as possible. But we have slowly learned the costly lessons of trying to outflank nature. Without fires, there would eventually be no forest. Fires keep the lands they burn healthy, whether they are forests, meadows, or deserts. A lot of the strength of current wildfires is fueled by centuries of fire suppression — leaving the forest full of flammable material: crowded, aging trees, heaps of fallen branches, dried shrubs, not enough green, succulent growth on the forest floor to slow new fires.

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Fireweed doing what it does best: moving in quickly after a fire

2015 was both the hottest year on record and had the most wildfires. One of our fellow campers that night was returning home to Fairbanks, Alaska. “The whole state is on fire,” she told me. These days, more and more fires are allowed to burn unless they pose a hazard to life or property, and, once in Alaska, we saw plenty of evidence that a lot of the state had burned earlier in the summer. After our arrival in mid-July, the weather grew steadily wetter. But we passed vast stands of black trunks, often interspersed with swathes of lighter trunks from earlier fires, trunks that had shed their burnt bark and were weathering to a silvery gray.

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Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)

A wildfire doesn’t immediately leave behind a pretty landscape. Those blackened trunks can stand for years while the growth around them recovers. It takes decades for trees to grow tall enough to replace the forest. But a fire opens the ground to sun, eliminates competition from tree roots and shrubs, and its ash fills the soil with nutrients. New growth is almost instant. By the time we drove down Route 97 six weeks later, the ground under the burned trunks was a vivid green. Native Americans used controlled fires to create these conditions, because the extra nutritious new grasses and plants attracted wildlife, and made hunting easier.

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Yellow flower: heart-leaf arnica (Arnica cordifolia); white flower: yellow hedysarum (Hedysarum sulphurescens), red paintbrush (Castilleja miniata)

The next arrivals are wildflowers, springing from seeds dormant for years, sometimes decades. In many areas deciduous trees sprout up, growing quickly, racing past the slow evergreens that will eventually outcompete them. During their long maturation, you will have years of glowing wildflowers. Then, depending on where you are, you may have years of aspen turning the mountainsides gold every fall, shimmering vivid green in the spring, their trunks silver above the snow in the winter. The conifers will slowly catch up, and take over, eventually blocking the light from the wildflowers and grasses, which will retreat into dormancy, waiting for the next fire to burn through and release them.

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Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus)

When I was in Banff, Alberta, I went into the visitors’ center to ask where I could find wildflowers. As soon as the friendly young woman said there had been a wildfire at Stanley Glacier in nearby Kootenay National Park, I was ready to go. The flowers accompanying this post are from that hike. Since I was so smitten with the flowers, I never took a picture of the terrain, which was full of three and four foot high lodgepole pines, lushly green and healthy. Around them grew fireweed, of course, mixed with wild orchids, and paintbrush in the most vivid colors I’ve ever seen. Columbine and fleabane were everywhere.

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Harsh paintbrush (Castillleja hispidus)

The fire happened in 2003, so it’s taken that long for the forest to get to 4’. We are used to fixing things quickly. If a house burns down, there can be a new one in months. If a forest burns down, it requires a very different mindset: rebuilding is the work of decades. A house is no good until it’s finished, but each stage of a growing forest is as vital as all the others. The wildflowers growing among the toddler trees at Stanley Glacier are just as much the forest as the trees that succeed them.

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Yellow columbine (Aquilegia flavescens)

Life on earth is a ceaseless conversation. Growth, death, change, renewal. Fire, flowers, aspens, lodgepole pines, fire. Ashes, petals, bark. Fireweed next to blackened trunks, wild orchids among the baby pines. It’s an ancient dialectic that we interrupt at our peril, because we don’t comprehend the infinity of factors that go into the earth’s forces. It has taken from colonial times until recently to understand that interfering with wildfires damages everything we think we’re saving. We must when houses and people are at stake, but even then, suppression comes at at the cost of making the next fire hotter and more dangerous, the soil more unstable, mudslides more likely. One of the many complex challenges facing us as we assess our footprint on the planet.

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White bog orchid (Plantathera dilatata), paintbrush (Castilleja miniata)

 

The Alaska icon: fireweed

Fireweed and the Grewingk Glacier in Homer

Fireweed and the Grewingk Glacier in Homer

If my passion were for fishing, or climbing mountains, or volcanoes, or glaciers, or mighty rivers, or wildlife, or liquid carbon geology, I might have chosen a different icon: salmon, Denali, Mt. Redoubt, the Matanuska Glacier, the Yukon River, the grizzly bear, the moose, the bald eagle, or even the Alaska pipeline. But, though I treasure many of them, not only is my passion for wildflowers, but all of those other icons never seem to appear, in summer, without fireweed somewhere in the picture. So, it’s my icon.

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Fireweed along the Alaska Highway

It’s the flower of summer, and it’s literally everywhere. It can match my height in the temperate rain forest, or cap out at less than a foot in the alpine tundra. The roadsides are magenta, open meadows are filled with it, the views of mountains and glaciers are seen through the tall, many-flowered racemes, dark green spruce forests form the backdrop of vast stands of it.

From left: buds, flowers and the pods they form, a rare white form

From left: buds, flowers and the pods they form, a rare white form

Fireweed is beautiful, sturdy, prolific, and always up to something. The new shoots can be eaten like asparagus. The leaves can be dried for tea. The flowers bloom over a long time, slowly opening from the lower stem to the tip. The first thing a local resident told me when I arrived in Valdez is that summer is over when the bloom gets to the top. While blooming, they make bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds very happy. According to a beekeeper, fireweed bees produce a white honey. Farmers’ markets sell pink fireweed jam.

As they bloom and fade, the ovaries under the petals continue to grow into long, slender pods, filled with so many seeds an individual plant can produce as much as 80,000. The pods continue the color scheme, sometimes almost as vivid as the flowers.

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A pod splitting open on a windy day

After a point, while flowers are still opening above them, the pods begin to split open, curving away from a slender, erect center, into four thin bracts, and 300 to 500 seeds from each pod start to float through the air. Once open, the curving bracts continue to encircle each other. As they dry, the color becomes gold in the sunlight. The leaves turn a bright, deep red, a memory of the vivid summer color still lingering on the roadsides as the flowers disappear completely.

Pods completely reflexed in autumn color

Pods completely reflexed in autumn gold

Eventually all those seeds land somewhere, and wait. If on open meadows or disturbed roadsides, they can germinate the next spring and bloom by their second year. If in the forest, they wait on nature. At some point, fire sweeps through, and, without the tree tops blocking their sun, or the roots taking all the water, fireweed is the first flower to burst into bloom, which is where it gets its name. It isn’t just fire —  it was the first plant to blossom in bomb craters in London in WWII, will take over a roadside immediately after the surfacing crews have left, and fills the swales of housing developments if it isn’t mowed down. Once established, the roots create rhizomes, spreading mat-like through the soil, forming a strong network of plants.

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Everything happening at once: flowers still blooming at the top, bright pods keeping the roadsice color going, fluffy seeds beginning to fly

So, it was a constant thrill. And now my truck is filled with these seeds. I picked a split pod one day and was intrigued to see clearly, for the first time, that slender center ‘pole’, and wondered if that tiny surface held all those hundreds of seeds, with their attendant feathery hairs caught by the four bracts as they curved away, pulling the seeds with them. Testing this further, I picked three pods that were just splitting open at the top, to see if I could catch this magic in the act. I put them on the dashboard, planning to take them back to the trailer and watch them.

fireweed-epilobium-angustifolium-Stewart-British-Columbia-Canada-by-Betsey-CrawfordA short time later I realized they had all burst wide open, right there on the dashboard, and the seeds were beginning to float around. They floated the whole day, showing a particular affinity for George, who had to keep blowing them away. I was utterly delighted. The next day, when I got into the truck, not a single feather was to be seen anywhere. Even the curling bracts had disappeared from the dashboard, though I later found one on the floor. Some of the seeds must have gone out the window on the trip, or the door when we got out, but the rest — hundreds of them — are still in there. So I have this vision of the truck, after many years of service, being put out to pasture, doors open, letting in sun, rain, dirt slowly accumulating, and all those fireweed seeds springing to life.fireweed-epilobium-angustifolium-Wynn-Nature-Center-Homer-Alaska-by-Betsey-Crawford