Go anywhere in Alaska over the last couple of months, and you would see color across the grasses, in between the trees, and up on the mountains. The color doesn’t always stand out as awe inspiring or over notable to most visitors, but coming back from 10 days in the lower 48, it triggered a growing bit of desperation. Known as Rosebud Willowherb & Great Willow-Herb in other parts of the world, in Alaska we give the most widespread wildflower in this region with the far less ceremonious name up here of “Fireweed”. While people use this plant for things like wines, jams, honeys, and even a substitute for turnips, fireweed is best used up here to tell you a clock is ticking.
Fireweed is a strange plant. It grows as a nice green stalk anywhere between 2 and 4 feet high. For most the summer months, it is overly unspectacular. Then somewhere around mid-July, the upper portion of the stalk grows purplish flowers, but not along it’s entire upper length. It actually starts where it transitions from leaves near the top to this flowering portion, and slowly blooms in succession up to the tip. As the upper blooms start growing, the lower ones fall off left with a reddish stem. This progression takes about two to three weeks until the entire blooming portion is just these crimson stems, and is similar to amongst most the fireweed in a given area. By mid-August, the stems grow deeper read, until they open and form white plumes of seeds. Late August comes the spread of those seeds, filling the air with a white fluff hanging in trees and the random spider web.
Other than the fact these plants are prominent, what makes them so special is imbedded in the description above. Namely:
Mid-July … Purple Flowers Starts to bloom
Next 2-3 weeks … bloom up in progression
Mid-August .. Stems grow Deeper Red
Late August … White Fluff
Quite literally, you can time the late summer in Alaska by the Fireweed. A few people I talk to actually gage their activities on the fireweed. When the blooms start coming out, that means you have to get serious on your bigger adventures or longer vacations. Once the blooms reach the top, salmon stop running and summer is almost over. Stems grow deeper red, time to get your project list for done. White fluff, summer is over.
To me, it also symbolizes the seasons here as well, simply because this plant goes through such significant transitions that its never the same plant twice. Yet the change happens so fast that if you do keep an eye on the signs you will miss whole transitions.
The last 10 days, I missed most of Alaska. During that time, it quite literally feels like we moved out of summer and into autumn. There was a lot of rain, and the air is wet and cool. Part of that may just be me transitioning from stupid hot Texas to way up north; but the end of summer is definitely in the air. Not just because there is white fluff running around, but because … that’s what happens this time of year. Summer ends.
Ready or not.