Erechtites hieraciifolia: Edible Pile Driver
When I go to Greece I always stay a few days in Athens to get used to the time change and visit in-town relatives, as opposed to out-of-town relatives. I stay at the same little hotel — the Art Gallery Pension — on Erekthion Street. It’s a few hundred feet due south of the Acropolis and the Erechtheon, a shrine also atop the Acropolis. I also stay there a month or so later when I am ready to leave, to enjoy the Plaka night life after I’ve adjusted to the time change, and visit relatives again. So when I see the Fireweed (Erechtites hieraciifolia) half a world away I am reminded that even after some two and a half millennia the language of the past is still with us. More on that later.
I wish I could report that the Fireweed a choice edible. It would be more accurate to say it is edible. While widely used in the past and the present in Asia. This is not a dainty-flavored plant. But, like its cousins the Dandelion, False hawk’s Beard and Chicory, it’s a nutritious green for the table… just hold your nose. Young parts can be eaten raw or cooked, but this is not for the faint of pallet. Native Americans did not use it for food but rather medicine.
Merritt Lyndon Fernald, of Gray’s Manual of Botany and also co-author of Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, said of the E. hieraciifolia: “There is no reason, except the odor, that prevents us from using it.” Dick Deuerling, author of Florida’s Incredible Wild Edibles, told me one time he only ate tasty wild foods and that did not include the E. hieracifolia, though he included it in his book. Dr. James A. Duke author of the Handbook of Edible Weeds and a second book, Medicinal Plants, said he could not improve on the comments of Troy Peterson, author of A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants who said of the E. hieraciifolia: “The strong flavor suggests this is an acquired taste.” Got the idea? However, this view may be personal. I have a good friend who enjoys the flavor immensely, raw or cooked.
E. hieraciifolia is a famine food as the Caesar Weed (Urena lobata) is a famine food: Nutritious, common, and good for you if you can get past this or that. With Caesar Weed it is texture, with E. hieraciifolia it is aroma and flavor. These plants are plentiful in the spring and early summer. Tall, rank and in your face, it is hard to misidentify a Fireweed. Foul perhaps but as good as any other spring time green.
As to the scientific name, Erechtites hieraciifolia. The latter part is easy: It means “having leaves like the hawkweed,” referring to the Hieracium (which means of or pertaining to priests) But Erechtites is more involved and botanists tend to not know their Greek. One, for example, will say it may come from Erechtho, to break. Another may say it might be for the fable early king of Athens, Erechtheus. Both close but no cigar.
The goddess Athena went to the lame blacksmith-god Hephaestrus. He was the tool maker for the gods. She wanted some weapons. However, he found her so enticing that he tried to overpower her and take away her virginity. She resisted and he missed his mark, leaving a deposit on her thigh. With a scrap piece of wool she wiped it off and threw the wool to the ground. That impregnated the earth, Gaia. Gaia gave birth to a son and took him to Athena who named him Erichthonius. Erextho means trouble and xthon means earth. The name has come to mean “troubles from the earth” for a troublesome weed. The transliterated spelling varies greatly. Erechtites was also the name of an ancient groundsel in Greece and was first used to describe a plant in 40-80 CE by Dioscorides. King Erechtheus, who invented the chariot, was actually an early king of Attica not Athens but the region of Attica included Athens.
The plant has many local names as well besides Fireweed: Goat’s Chicory, Burn Weed, Stickers, Sun’s Ribs, Dog Weed and American Burnweed. There is also a second “Fireweed” a tall perennial (Epilobium angustifolium) in the evening-primrose family with spikes of pinkish-purple flowers. It is also edible. Our Fireweed has one other common name: Pilewort. Folks used Oil of Fireweed to externally treat their hemorrhoids. Fireweed puts out the fire. It has some internal uses as well, such as treating dysentery.
And I saved this for last: The pronunciation of Erechtites hieraciifolia, is eleven syllables: e-rek-TEE-tez hee-eh-rak-ee-FO-li-a. Greeks like long words. That is why it is easy to tell the difference between an Irish and Greek cemetery. When you drive by the Irish one the stones are all tall and skinny with vertically engraved short names like Sean Ireland. Whereas all the stones in the Greek cemetery are low and long to accommodate Βασιλιος Σταβρος Τσαπατσαρις.
IDENTIFICATION: Erect annual to 80 inches, flower yellow to whitish, 1/3″- 2/3″ inches long; inflorescence flat-topped to elongated clusters of drooping heads, flowers barely open; fruit, a dry seed on a bright white fluffy powder puff. Leaf alternate, lance-shaped, sharply toothed, some times lobed.
TIME OF YEAR: Blooms early summer to autumn.
ENVIRONMENT: Dry to wet; open woods, partially disturbed sites, fields, lake shores.
METHOD OF PREPARATION: Tops, leaves, flower buds raw or cooked, including steaming and boiling.