Originally posted on Oct 19, 2016
As we move into the cooler time of the year, the subject of fire starting becomes more of an important consideration on woodland outings. Campfires are not only more enjoyable during the autumn and winter seasons, they can actually become a necessity to avoid hypothermia. With that in mind, I am doing this blog post on one of the easiest to use tinder materials I know of.
Goldenrod is a member of the sunflower family, and is one of the most prolific flowers on the North American continent. It has 77 separate species, and there is at least one variety native to every region of North America. There are a couple of varieties; Giant Golden Rod and Canada Goldenrod, that are native to all but a few small regions. For the purpose of this post I am working with Giant Goldenrod, which is native to every state in the U.S except Arizona, the vast majority of Canada, and Northeaster Mexico. Since they produce a rather large array of bright yellow flower heads, and the leaf covered stems grow as tall as 80 inches in height, they are pretty easy to spot swaying in the breeze in woodland fields and clearings in later summer and early autumn.
There is always a lot of insect activity associated with Goldenrod and the other wild flowers in the late summer and autumn seasons. The flying insects that depend on these flowers for food are hurriedly gathering the pollen before they are gone. So there are usually, among other insects, bees and bee flies buzzing about, even in the autumn when some of the flower arrays have already gone to seed. The stinging insects like the red wasp on the left could be a serious concern for those with bee allergies. The bee flies, such as the yellow and black striped one on the right, are actually harmless, they just mimic bees in appearence as a passive form of self defense. However I have seen them cause people with a fear of bees to hurt themselves. The fact that they have flie eyes rather than bee eyes is a give-away, but can be hard to notice for someone experiencing anxiety
There are also several species of spiders who depend on the flying insects for food. Orbweavers make webs to catch them, so there are tell tale signs that make them pretty easy to spot. However they are not known for injuring people. Other spiders are passive hunters who hide among the flowers and attack the flying insects that land on them. Crab Spiders, like the one one on the left, are one such species. They are also not known to be a threat to humans. However Yellow Sac Spiders, on the right, are also passive hunters who make their homes among the leaves of the flowers. They are a known threat, and they are much more potent than one might think just looking at their size. As you can see it is smaller than the onion seeds beside it, and they have excellent camouflage. Yet their venom can cause intense localized pain, and produce abscesses larger than an inch in diameter. I always advise my students to bring along small zippered food storage bags or other small seal-able container to collect materials in. Rather than just shoving things in pockets, or carrying them by hand.
Later on, in the colder part of the year, all of the flower arrays will have gone to seed, and insects will be much less of an issue. The grasses and weeds that were previously growing around the Goldenrod will have wilted down to ground clutter, while its woody stems hold the seed tufts high above the ground and still swaying in the breezes. Because of this it dries out much quicker after a rain, than any leafy materials that will be found on the ground. The fine hairs of the seeds create somewhat of a halo effect, and seem to glow when back-lit by the sun. This makes them easier to spot at greater distances. It should be noted that care should be taken with fire location around these materials.
Dried seed tufts of Goldenrod are, for the purposes of this post, what is considered a “flash” tinder. Which means it ignites very easily with with the sparks from a ferro rod, and even easier with a lighter or matches. This is helpful when it comes to lighting a fire while fatigued. It lights quickly and creates very energetic flames. However it does burn out quickly, so adding in some dry dead leaves or blades of grass for a second stage will increase the burn time The dry woody stalks make a good kindling material, but they too burn up quickly and do not make a good fuel source for sustained fire.
There are a lot of organic materials that can be used as tinder in woodland environment in the winter. All things considered Goldenrod is my favorite to use in dry conditions. It tends to grow in mass, so gathering enough seldom takes much time or effort. It ignites quickly and easily, and it burns hot. So it is a good one to be able to recognize. Whether you are weak and fatigued and need a fire to ward of hypothermia, or if you are just tired after a long hike and and just want to get the fire going so you cam fix something to eat, and get on to the relaxation.
It should be noted that proper precautions should be taken when establishing the location of the campfire when using this tinder material. Proximity, prevailing winds, and wind gusts should be taken into consideration. Hot sparks blown into a field of easily ignited materials, could lead to a very bad situation. So have a care, and have a much safer and more enjoyable outing.
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Brian Griffin is an author, photographer, wilderness and survival skills teacher, knife enthusiast, outdoor gear researcher and product development consultant. He has a decades-long history of using and developing outdoor related tools and gear.