How to Identify Fibre Plants

by Christa Clay


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There are far more than eight fibre plants available to us here in BC, but the Fibreshed Field School focused on hemp, daylily, nettle, flax, milkweed, dogbane, cedar, and fireweed. Some are native, others introduced, some common, others more tricky to find, but they all have their own stories and defining characteristics. All of these materials are of cultural significance to the Indigenous
communities. Harvesting and using these plants means participating in the global culture of resource extraction, and requires intimate engagement with ecosystems which are sometimes fragile. This is something to research, to talk about, and to be mindful about. A good rule of thumb is to tread lightly, never take more than 1/3 of what you see, and to use everything that you harvest. Be mindful of the seasons, the location, and the intentions you have. Have a plan, be respectful, and be kind.


Hemp Cannabaceae spp.

Hemp is structurally rigid and can grow up to 4 meters in height, depending on how it was cultivated. If you open its stalks, you will notice that it is hollow juntilt until you reach the tips or the base. It shares its signature leaves common among the other varieties of Cannabis Sativa, like marijuana. Hemp stalks are used for their fibre content, similarly to flax. It is an introduced species outside of Central America, cultivated for its use as a cash crop, and it is not traditionally found in the wild. Other uses: food, medicine, building materials, paper, bioplastics, biofuel, etc.

Daylily Hemerocallis spp.

This perennial flowering plant can range in height from 0.7-1.3m. The plant yields stems with strapping leaves coming from its base, and the leaves are used in weaving and coiling. Flowers often have three petals and three sepals collectively called tepals, each with a midrib in either the same basic color or a different color. The center most part of the flower, called the throat, may be a different color than the more distal areas of the tepals. Each flower usually has six stamens, each with a two-lobed anther.

Daylilies are an introduced species to North America, and are often found in gardens and landscaped areas, but can sometimes also be found wild in open meadows with good sunlight, often in undisturbed areas such as cemeteries and cemetery prairies, thickets and woodland borders, areas along railroads and roadsides, sites of abandoned homesteads, and old flower gardens.

Other uses: food (flowers)

Stinging Nettle Utrica spp.

This is an erect, perennial herb, armed with stinging hairs, with four sided stems. With its leaves opposite, it is slender stalked, with the blades narrowly lance-shaped to oval, coarsely saw-toothed. Its stalk is used as the fibre source.

This native species grows up to 3m tall in moist rich sites (alluvial floodplains, streamsides, avalanche tracks) and disturbed ground from low to subalpine elevations across Canada.

Other uses: food and medicine

Caution: always wear gloves and long sleeves when harvesting nettles. The swollen base of each tiny, hollow hair contains an irritant that is released when in contact with skin.

Flax Linum spp.

This is a slender, grey-green, annual or perennial herb with many linear to lance-shaped 1-3cm leaves. The flowers are pale blue, about 2-3cm across, with five fragile petals, that soon fade. The herb opens in a few flowering clusters from May to August. The stems of native prairie flax (L. lewisii) and introduced blue flax (I. perenne) contain long, tough fibres that are used to make fishing lines and nets. Common flax (I. usitatissimum) is used to make linen. Common flax is an introduced annual herb that grows to 1m tall from a taproot. Leaves are more lance-shaped than that of the other species, and are 3-veined along at least half of their length. Found in old fields and disturbed sites across Canada.

Other uses: food and medicine

Milkweed Asclepias spp.

This is a robust, greyish, downy, perennial herb sprouting from rhizomes, with milky sap (latex), and hollow, hairy stems. The simple leaves are opposite, and exude a milky sap when bruised. Fruits (follicles) are single or paired, with soft-spiny pods containing flat seeds with parachutes of silky hairs. The seeds are collected as the fibre source.

A. speciosa is a western species that has branched stems and a deeply hairy appearance. Leaves have a pinkish midrib and conspicuous side veins. This grows on open ground (road­sides, streamsides, meadows, and grasslands) in prairies, foothills, and mountain zones in southern BC and Alberta.

Other uses: food and medicine

Dogbane Apocynum spp.

This is an erect, perennial herb that grows to 1m tall, with milky sap and opposite, sharp-pointed short­stalked leaves. Flowers are bell-shaped, 5-petalled, and sweet-smelling, forming shadowy, branched clusters that bloom from June to September.

A. cannadium has narrower, ascending leaves and smaller (2-4mm long) greenish to white flowers. This plant grows in dry to moist, often disturbed sites at low mountain elevations throughout Canada. Other uses: food and medicine

Cedar Thuja spp.

This is an evergreen tree, 20-60m tall, with stout trunks, short branches, fibrous bark, and 3mm long scale-like leaves that form flat, yellowish-green fan-like sprays (pictured on the left). The bark is used as the fibre source. Western red cedar (T. plicara) grows to 60m tall in rich, moist conditions from low elevation to mountain sites in BC and southwestern Alberta. It is the provincial tree of British Columbia but most significantly it is the most important and widely-used plant for the Indigenous peoples in the region.

Other uses: food and medicine

Fireweed Epilobium spp.

This is a clumped, perennial herb with alternate, lance-shaped leaves on erect stems. These leafy stems grow 1-3m tall. The flowers are 2 to 3 cm in diameter and slightly asymmetrical, with four magenta or pink petals, and four narrower pink sepals behind. The protruding style has four stigmas. The upright, reddish-brown linear seed capsule splits from the apex and curls open. It bears many tiny brown seeds, about 300 to 400 per capsule and 80,000 per plant. The stems and seeds are used for their fibre content. This native plant is common in open forests and disturbed areas, especially burned sites and ditches. It likes to grow along riverbanks and forests across many parts of B.C., and is very common in northern areas.

Other uses: food and medicine


MacKinnon, A., Kershaw, L., Arnason, J. T., Owen, P., Karst, A., & Chambers, H. F. (2016). Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada. Partners Publishing.