Fireweed and Nettle Harvest
I went out the other day with Willem and harvested a whole bunch more fireweed as well as nettles for this next year. I’m going to process even more for my own projects but I want to save a bunch and do another cordage skill share at Echoes in Time next summer. I’m going to save some nettle for that too. I generally cut the stalk as close to the ground as possible and then strip the leaves off by running the stalk along my hand, either with a bandanna or wearing gloves. I do this with both nettles and fireweed. Once they dry I will put more pictures up on how to process them into fiber that you can spin into cord.
Fireweed received its name because its one of the first plants to grow in a disturbed area, generally after a fire. Nowadays though, “Clear-Cut Weed” might be a better name since Smokey suppresses natural fires and rarely lights them intentionally. You can find it growing in many disturbed areas though, like roadsides or old railroad tracks. It has very beautiful purple flowers and after it goes to seed it has a fluffy, cotton-like down that helps the wind catch and carry the seeds to distant lands. The cotton works very well for tinder bundles.
While teaching a camp a few years back I was working one on one with a student to build a bow-drill kit from scratch with no knife, just stone tools. For cordage, I didn’t know of many useful plants in the area so we attempted to use the fireweed growing along an old logging road. It was still flowering, but since we were acting in “survival mode” we didn’t waste time cutting a few for our cord. The bark peeled off much like stinging nettle. Once peeled I attempted wrapping it into cord with no success at all. It was weak and broke every time. It basically fell apart in my hands. I wondered what the process was for making it into cord correctly. Was it time of harvest? Some particular kind of processing? Later that year I gathered a bunch after they had gone to seed, bundled them up and let them dry in my house, the same way I would with nettles. I figured I would do some more research and find the correct processing technique at some point. I stuck them in a corner and forgot about them for almost a whole year.
At Echoes in Time this year I remembered to ask a woman (who probably wouldn’t want me mentioning her name here) who has an insane amount of knowledge about northwest coast ethnobotany and anthropology. I said, “I read that you can use fireweed for cordage but I tried and it fell apart in my hands…” I was about to ask the question and she quickly replied, “You need to gather it after it dies on the stalk, but before the first winter storm.” I was totally excited. The fireweed I had gathered the year before was exactly at that time (which is generally, right now!). Honestly there are a handful of crazily experienced people who go to these rendezvous, and while they may not come at the knowledge from a rewilding point of few, it really is priceless to get some time sitting and talking with them about things.
I held off on processing them until the next month when I went up to Porcupine Palace for a skill share. I figured I would process all my nettle and fireweed from last year while I was there, and maybe do a skill share on cordage making. I think I ended up doing three different skill shares on cordage as people passed in and out over the couple of days I was there. The fireweed bark was easily removed from the woody stem andÂ then I buffed off the shiny outer bark by rubbing it between my hands. I’m hoping to finish a long piece and make a cord for my bow-drill set cause I think it will be funny to have “fire”weed cordage.
I’ve been doing the reverse wrap method with my fingers and it’s so tedious and time consuming. I’m going to start playing around with the leg-roll method for cordage and I hope that works out better. Someone was telling me, might have been Miles or Devin, that it might work well if I used it with a drop spindle. I haven’t learned that skill yet, but now I want to really bad. I’m definitely going to learn that at the next big skill share I go to up at Porcupine Palace or Echoes in Time.
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