Erechtites hieracifolius Raf.
July to November N Family: Asteraceae
Flower: The tube flowers sitting on a central disk are encased by long bracts. These bracts are green, often bulge over the central disk and look like a wall slightly twisted from bottom to top. The top of the bracts flares slightly as the tube flowers open. Their petals are white to light pink but barely stick out over the bracts. The styles extend themselves over the bracts.
Leaf: The leaves begin as a rosette then are alternate on the stem getting smaller the higher up the stem they occur. The leaves have numerous toothed lobes with more sharply pointed teeth between the lobes. The upper surface usually has no hairs. The under surface has scattered short hairs especially along the prominent midvein and smaller side veins. The under surface is lighter green than the upper.
Stem: A single strong stem can reach nine feet but is usually much shorter. There are no branches until the flower stalks go off toward the top. The stem has longitudinal grooves but no hairs. It is green but can have a few red streaks.
Root: This annual has a taproot.
Fruit: The long ovate seed is attached to the central disk. The other end has a tuft of white hairs that flares out to better catch the wind.
Habitat: This plant likes open areas especially disturbed ones. It can appear in openings in the woods or more commonly along streams or rivers and along roads.
The secret to Fireweed’s success is how fast it grows and colonizes an area. It does not compete well with other plants.
Fireweed is one of the first plants to grow in a burned over area or the gravel and mud left behind by high water along a river. This is where the name came from.
The stem streaks upward and puts out masses of flower heads. Even as new tube flowers open up old ones are making seeds. It is common to see all stages from developing flower heads to blooming ones to newly closed ones to puff balls of seeds on the same plant.
In spite of the vast numbers, hundreds to thousands of seeds a plant produces, most will end up as bird food or land in places unsuitable for the plant. I find it most commonly along the gravel bars of a river or along the edge of the gravel road where few other plants can grow.