Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

What I didn’t know about fireweed

with 23 comments

To tell the truth, before the trip to the Rocky Mountains in Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia, I knew almost nothing about fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium). In nature shows on television I’d occasionally caught a glimpse of the plants flowering, and that was about it.

In addition to yesterday’s strictly “vegetarian” post, three previous photographs showed you fireweed flowers and animals. In one case it was with a bumblebee, in another with a ground squirrel, and the third with a caterpillar. What impressed me about the plant in its own right was its seeds. The reddish seed pods are long and narrow, and when they open, which surprisingly often happens from the proximal rather than the distal end, they release seeds attached to silky strands, much like milkweed seeds. At the moment when I took the photograph above in Waterton Lakes National Park on August 29th, the newly freed seeds still partly preserved the alignment they’d had just a short while earlier when compressed inside their slender pods. That same temporary clinging to the past is visible in the photograph below, which is from near the shore of Emerald Lake in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park on September 7th.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 24, 2018 at 4:52 AM

23 Responses

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  1. I’d like to think my comment tipped the look-back. However it is, we’re glad you share the seasonal perspectives on this very cool wildflower.


    January 24, 2018 at 7:33 AM

    • Yes, I added the look-back at the caterpillar for your sake. I added the second photograph for mine, as I hadn’t paid enough attention to its graceful jumble of curves in red and white.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2018 at 7:50 AM

  2. The pods remind me of those on my Cape honeysuckle, which were equally slender: hardly more than a half-inch across. They had a milkweed-like seed, too, which was packed just as elegantly as these.

    For me, the second photo was the more evocative, because of the color. Not only is the magenta and white intrinsically lovely, the combination of fluff and color remind me of my visit to the Diamond Grove prairie. At the time I was there, the colorful sumac on the mima mounds and the fluff from little bluestem made for some lovely photos.


    January 24, 2018 at 8:21 AM

    • I had to look up Cape honeysuckle, which I’m not familiar with, to see what you meant about its pods. I also learned that Cape “honeysuckle” isn’t actually a honeysuckle. This is one more example of the common phenomenon of naming a plant after a similar-looking one that the namer is familiar with.

      The second photograph is more evocative for me, too, not so much because it reminds me of something (though I did think intrinsically of Escher’s “Convex and Concave,”) as because of the pleasant arrangement of all the components.

      Am I correct that you haven’t yet shown any pictures from the Diamond Grove Prairie? I searched your blogs for “diamond grove” but nothing turned up.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2018 at 9:00 AM

      • Escher’s “Convex and Concave” would make a terrific cover for John Ashbery’s collection, Self Portrait In A Convex Mirror. Reading his poetry always feels to me like trying to make my way through just such a scene.

        You’re right that I haven’t posted about Diamond Grove. After I noticed the sumac was growing only on the mima mounds, I got in touch with a Missouri state biologist, and we talked about possible reasons. Then, I made some inquiries about the mounds on Nash Prairie, and the more I learned, the more confused I got. I should revisit all that, and do a post.


        January 25, 2018 at 7:44 AM

  3. What a cool plant, and how extremely festive-looking!! This wouldn’t look out of place, attached to a cavalier hat on Mad Prince Rupert.

    Robert Parker

    January 24, 2018 at 8:43 AM

    • Fireweed certainly put me in a festive mood, as I saw it so often that you could call it a theme of our trip.

      I had to look up Mad Prince Rupert, about whom I knew nothing. One unexpected hit in my Google search was airline flights from YPR (Prince Rupert) to MAD (Madrid). I wonder how many people each year actually fly to Madrid from that coastal British Columbia town.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2018 at 9:25 AM

      • I didn’t know there was a town named for him, he was kind of a maniac.

        Robert Parker

        January 24, 2018 at 9:33 AM

        • In a similar way, I don’t understand why there are museums or historical sites commemorating people like Billy the Kid and Jesse James, who were outlaws.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 24, 2018 at 10:27 AM

  4. Great information, I totally like those pinkish branches. Thank you and greetings.


    January 24, 2018 at 10:05 AM

    • Those “pinkish branches” are actually fireweed’s long and slender seed pods. They do make an appealing display when seen as closely as this.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2018 at 10:22 AM

  5. Pods in various unrelated genera and families have surprisingly similar seeds and pods. Bignoniaceae is such a variable family alone, although the seeds are not airborne. Oleander has similar pods and seeds.


    January 24, 2018 at 9:34 PM

    • Right you are. Similar pod shapes are another good example of convergent evolution. Fireweed is in the Onagraceae, yet its seeds attached to plumes are so much like those of milkweeds.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2018 at 10:16 PM

  6. Interesting that the seeds open from the proximal end .. great shot against the blue sky


    January 30, 2018 at 11:52 AM

    • You know how much I love photographing plants against a blue sky. So much the better when the plant is of a contrasting color.

      And yes, the way the pods often open from the proximal end surprised me. I don’t recall seeing anything like that, before or since.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 30, 2018 at 12:11 PM

  7. I’m a big clinger-to-the-past, so I can relate to these beautifully photographed seeds.


    February 8, 2018 at 9:46 AM

  8. That is right about how the pods split open~it doesn’t match expectations. This year I’ll pay more attention to the pods in my purvue and see what they do…..looks like I just taught my computer a new word, based on its reaction!


    February 8, 2018 at 9:48 AM

    • I’ll add that you have a rendez-view with those fireweed pods. I hope you’ll both keep the appointment.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 8, 2018 at 10:01 AM

      • I hope so too, next fall apparently. Right now we’re having our first real snow storm of the season. My family studied me yesterday as I serenely agreed to have my car blocked in by theirs and agreed that, “yes, she’s not planning on going anywhere until May”!


        February 9, 2018 at 10:06 AM

        • You still have it comparatively easy. We visited places in the Canadian Rockies that don’t get plowed out till May. For more than half a year the roads in those places aren’t really roads.

          Steve Schwartzman

          February 9, 2018 at 10:18 AM

          • True. It’s funny how my perceptions are wonky. When I was a child we lived in Spokane, Wa. and my impression was of a mild climate, plenty of green, mild winters. Come to find out, it is but an oasis in desert, with bitter winters and LOTS of snow. Well I suppose the years we were there, we happened to be living abroad in the winters. That would explain it. I just remember snow being a revelation to me when we moved to Illinois. You’re right, we do have it easy. I grumble about 8″ of snow but that is nothing compared to the snows I remember in the 80’s. And, of course, nothing at all compared to the Rockies. I’d think you’d have to actually like snow if you lived there.


            February 10, 2018 at 10:35 AM

            • The expression “cabin fever” comes to mind. Maybe nowadays snowmobiles reduce the risk of that for people who live in those places in the Rockies where cars can’t be used in the winter.

              As you point out, childhood impressions are often different from the ones we have as adults. Size is one factor. Responsibility in the world is another.

              Steve Schwartzman

              February 10, 2018 at 12:23 PM

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