The name “fireweed plant” conjures up two images.
The first is a field of brilliant red, yellow and orange blossoms. The second is a scrub bush that is so hardy that it is the only plant which is so hardy that it can even survive a fire.
In truth, fireweed is somewhat closer to the second image than the first.
Fireweed flowers are indeed beautiful, but they’re usually brilliant pink in color. The plant’s name comes instead from the fact that its seeds often lay dormant in the ground, and are the first sprout after a major environmental disturbance – like a forest fire. Fireweed was the first plant to be seen after the devastating 1980 Mount Saint Helens volcanic eruption in Washington State, and it grew quickly in British bomb craters during World War II (earning it the nickname “bombweed”).
One might think that such a hearty plant would produce a hearty, full-bodied honey. However, fireweed honey is actually quite mild and delicate.
It’s also extremely difficult – but extremely rewarding – to find, because this rare and delicious honey is widely known among connoisseurs as the “champagne of honeys.” Sadly, its price often reflects that reality.
The Quest for Fireweed Honey
Fireweed plants thrive in cool, northern climates similar to the ones where blackberry plants grow. In the United States, they’re found primarily in the Pacific Northwest, and grow all the way from Washington state up through British Columbia and the Yukon (where it’s sometimes known as great willowherb), and as far north and west as the Alaskan coast. Fireweed is also commonly seen in Scandinavia, Britain and New Zealand (where it’s known as rosebay willowherb, and as celebrated as the manuka honey also produced in the region).
Fireweed is hardy and it spreads, if you’ll pardon the expression, like wildfire. But it’s not easy for beekeepers to harvest pure fireweed honey from its prolific blooms. That’s because it’s considered a wildflower, and fireweed blossoms appear at the same time as many other types of wildflower blossoms. Honey bees end up pollinating all of those nectar sources virtually simultaneously, so it’s a nearly impossible beekeeping task to separate fireweed honey from other wildflower honeys.
A few producers do manage to maintain areas exclusively populated with fireweed plants. They’re the rare ones who are able to bottle and sell pure honey made from fireweed nectar, usually at premium prices. Chances are good that you won’t be able to find any of it in your local organic foods store, though. This honey is normally only available from beekeepers or producers in the area, over the web or on Amazon.
Just be sure that you’re buying real fireweed honey; many people – and some unscrupulous producers – infuse another varietal of honey with the extracted flavor of boiled fireweed blossoms. It’s a lot cheaper, but nowhere near the same.
If you do manage to find some of the “champagne of honeys,” here’s what you’ll discover.
The Delights of Fireweed Honey
Just by looking at a jar of fireweed honey, you can tell that it’s something special. It has an extremely pure and light amber color, sometimes nearly clear and sometimes with a tinge of green, depending on the honey’s regional source. It has a relatively-low sucrose content so fireweed honey takes a while to crystallize, but when it eventually does its color becomes even lighter. (Contrary to popular opinion, crystallized honey hasn’t spoiled; it can easily be restored to its liquid state by gently heating the honey jar in a warm water bath for 30-60 minutes.)
Fireweed honey has a clean and pleasant aroma, and a taste that is smooth, sweet and fruity with a delightful buttery finish. In short, this honey deserves all of the accolades it receives, because it’s absolutely delicious. It has a fine texture, making it easy to drizzle on pancakes or cheese, or spread on toast or biscuits.
That’s only some of the many ways to enjoy fireweed honey, though. It is perfect for use in any honey recipes, great when used as a key ingredient in barbeque sauce or a meat glaze, yummy when used as a substitute for sugar to sweeten tea or coffee, and an excellent table honey for any other purpose.
There’s no secret nutritional value in fireweed honey. It has approximately the same high carbohydrate and calorie content as most honey varietals, so it’s a treat best enjoyed periodically and not regularly.
As for its health benefits, that’s a different story.
The Health Benefits of Fireweed Honey
All varieties of raw honey, including fireweed honey, have natural antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, thanks to the bee pollen, beeswax, royal jelly and propolis (bee glue) that’s contained in them. If the honey has been pasteurized and gone through ultra-filtration, those ingredients – and their health benefits – are lost. But luckily, even if you can find fireweed honey you’ll probably never jars that have been highly-processed, since this honey isn’t “sanitized” for sale on supermarket shelves.
Fireweed honey doesn’t have any extra antioxidant power than most honeys, so while it’s generally a good food for the purposes of fighting free radical activity in the body and working to inhibit the development of diseases, it’s not exceptional when compared to other varieties. The story is different when it comes to antibacterial properties, however. Fireweed is particularly effective in preventing the growth of many bacteria that can grow in the body, including streptococcal pneumonia and other common staph infections.
Raw fireweed honey is also used by many naturopaths to treat a variety of other illnesses and ailments, including gastrointestinal diseases and problems like stomach ulcers, gastritis and constipation; immune system issues and anemia; and certain types of headaches. More than most honeys, fireweed honey is an effective wound treatment because of its antibacterial power, and it is even used in some natural face scrubs and creams to improve the skin’s texture and resilience.