Say that five times, fast I dare ya.
Right now my news feeds are filled with more data supporting trends that show sickening predictions for California and the whole west coast’s drought-filled summer and wildfire season. With not enough atmospheric rivers this winter most of California is already underwater restrictions, and it’s only May. Eeek! Check out this great KQED Infographic that illustrates the severity. Fires can be devastating, but they also give rise to naturally beautiful systems as a new wave of growth emerges from the blackness.So what does that mean for native flora and annual wildflowers?
Depending on where you live fire may be an extremely infrequent event, but here in California, it is very much a part of the landscape. Fire is one factor that is responsible for the great diversity of plants here, along with other factors like geology and the Mediterranean climate. While historically lightning was the catalyst for wildfires, and still is but the influence of humans both by 21st-century humans and all the way back to the first indigenous peoples who stewarded the land. But obviously with the influx of humans, alteration of landscapes, and changing climates the quantity and type of wildfires have changed.
So how frequent should fires occur to be considered natural in California? Well it differs depending on the environment, and for the Bay Area that’s about every 50 to 100 years. Frequency and intensity are factors that affect post fire germination. High intensity fires are beneficial to manzanitas, ceanothus sp and others. But others prefer a low severity or patchy burn. Chaparral needs periodic fires in order to maintain it’s composition, and when it does impressive wildflower displays appear which we’ve witnessed a few times this spring. For once chaparral is walk through-able for us bushwackers.
Unfortunately non-native plant species such as European grasses have invaded native areas as humans have steadily overhauled any remaining native landscape over the past centuries. Non-natives more often than not outcompete natives which can lead to total alterations of habitat types such as oak woodlands being transformed into agriculture, grazing pastures, or reduced biodiversity habitats . Besides losing native flora and the native fauna that rely on those species, non-natives, especially invasive grasses are the perfect fuel for re-occurring fires. But these fires occur much more frequently than what’s natural, not just because of introduced plant species. These two factors combine such as in coastal sage scrub in Southern California: when the scrub is inundated with non-native grasses fires burn frequently, the native shrubs experience higher than normal mortality rates. When the shrubs cannot maintain dominance the landscape can shift to grasslands.
When a fire comes through an area the first group of plants to resprout are toughies. Not a technical term, just my own name. They have to be able to survive the initial heat, and pop out shoots before others take over. Traits of such plants include thick bark or a stump to resprout from (like manzanitas), carbon storing roots, and a lignotuber. What’s a lignotuber Chloe? Well it’s essentially a mass grown below or at the soil surface which contains food reserves and material to create new buds. The woody lignotuber can survive fire, drought, or animal browsing and when the initial fire or grazing damage has ceased it will start budding. Plants across many genera independently evolved this mechanism to deal with destructive forces such as fire. Then the ash left behind a fire it provides a nutrient boost to those capable of using it. Combined with an overwhelming influx of sunlight now that a mature canopy ceases to exist, plants that can sprout have an absolute hay day.
So what about wildflowers? Similar to some pine trees, such as the Monterey or Knobcone pine which have adapted cones that require fire to melt the resin away – unleashing the seeds – some wildflowers have similar adaptations. Some wildflowers will only appear after a fire has come through, such as the fire poppy, a strict wildfire follower you could say. We’ve searched for both the wind and fire poppy which can appear together after a fire but have come up empty this year. But others appear shortly after a fire but widespread in non-fire altered landscapes too. From what I can gather there is no strict categorization of fire-followers versus kinda/sort-of/maybe fire followers. Like a lot of things in nature, strict labels don’t always jibe. Even with a lot of unanswered questions, I poked around to see what I could learn about a few of my favorite “fire following flowers.” So here is a small write-up about five different flowers found in recently burned areas and the associated stories of finding them. Enjoy!
For the first flower I investigated – this one definitely qualifies as a fire follower. When these started popping up near the Bay Area I felt bombarded with photos of Whispering Bells. On weekday solo hikes I ran into multiple people who mentioned they were looking for them, or asked if I’d seen them yet. I didn’t really understand the obsession. So here’s my homework report in attempt to understand the obsession.
As a small note, I’m combining Emmenanthe penduliflora and a variation: penduliflora in this post. But the genus Emenanthe is monotypic, meaning penduliflora is the only species within this genera. Variation in botany, in wild plants basically means a naturally occurring variation, but two variations can usually still interbreed.
This plant prefers hotter, medium to high-intensity fires. A 1998 paper found that Nitrogen dioxide effectively germinated these seeds. The gas form of nitrogen dioxide and other chemicals are transferred from the surrounding soil to the seed. While the exact reasons how smoke-induced germination occurs there are theories revolving around differences in material and makeup of the seed’s different layers. So while shocking the seeds of the Whispering Bells with heat will induce germination, wildfire smoke also gets the job done.
While I’ve only seen yellow petals, apparently Whispering Bells can be pink as well, ooo pretty! When dried, hung upside down and exposed to the wind, allegedly the sound that is created inspired its common name. Personally, I think that’s a stretch, wouldn’t many other flowering plants create a similair sound? Hmmmm maybe I just need to try it for myself, but I ain’t got time for that. I’ll put this activity on the “when I retire” list.
My second flower has a kinda funny story. On our 12-mile blitz hike in Robert Louis Stevenson SP in April our goal was to find a blooming Purdy’s Fritillary but came up empty. While we did find many other great flowers it was usually on the first pass of the in and out route. But this one was an exception. On the return route, we were hot, exhausted and not looking forward to the last climb. But before the summit of a small hill Trevor who was ahead spotted this perfect little humble Napa Fawn Lily. We had totally missed it the first time. BAH! Well, I’m glad our eyeballs clued in this time as it’s the one and only we’ve seen this year!
The species name “helenae” comes from the mountain, Mt Saint Helena which is positioned perfectly between Napa, Sonoma and Lake County. On this mountain, specifically on serpentine soils is where this puppy thrives. It is one of California’s special serpentine endemics, a pretty special club. The surrounding landscape must have burned quite hot as there was very little growth and the woody debris was completely black. Not sure if a wildfire instigated germination or just if the post wildfire conditions are favorable to the Napa Fawn Lily but it obviously does will in these conditions.
Oooo aren’t those mottled green leaves just gorgeous!? The name Fawn Lilly comes from the resemblance to a deer fawn’s coat. From the base the flower can be up to 30 cm tall with one to three flowers. What would normally be petals the white structures with yellow bases are tepals (flower terminology for who the eff knows if its a petal or sepal).
This year has so far been full of flowers we’ve never observed yet, aka “firsts.” Sometimes those flowers we only see one at one particular spot but other’s we see a couple times throughout our travels. This Cardinal Catchfly, Silene laciniata is in the second group which is fantastic because this plant produces such a stunning flower! The very first time we found them Trevor and I was on parallel trails in Upper Bidwell Park near Chico, CA. We each found our first Cardinal Catchflies at the same time! Bah! But those plants were in quite small bunches or just a singular stalk. A short trip to Stonyford Off-Highway Vehicle Park on a different weekend gave us another chance to swoon over these babies which were in a huge patch near a small stream.
This baby grows from a taproot which perhaps aids in its ability to be a fire follower. From its tall and glandular stem pops out the flower which starts from a fused calyx to its five petals, each divided into four or six long lobes.
If you are a frequent reader or visitor of my Instagram then you know I have a small obsession with this plant. My first ever time observing this plant was in Del Puerto Canyon where a small dotted population grew along a very steep trail. Not the best spot to observe. . .I mean totally swoon over its fabulous-ness. Months after the first encounter I started doodling around and drawing some flowers in what would become my nature journal with much more organized and informative entries. This flower was one of my first entries. But this year, ooooo bebe on a drive on Highway 130 in April HOLY MOLY this flower was everywhere! Dreams do come true! This area burned in August of 2020, and in April 2021 there were blooms ranging from small roadside populations to huge swaths of hillsides covered in yellow! What an incredible sight!
While I can’t find much information on what aspect of a recent fire ignites their germination, (pun intended) they definitely qualify as some sort of fire follower. It is included in many Bay Area fire following lists as perhaps its well known hardiness in drought conditions plays a role in its ability to colonize recently burned areas.
If you find yourself in its range of coastal sage scrub and southern oak woodland habitats they are hard to miss. Just look at those beautiful big petals and a massive cluster of stamens (long filamentous cluster in the center)! These stamens (the male part) include the pollen machine at the tip (the anther). This sits below the stigma (part of the female structure) which helps prevent self-pollination. So when a pollinator such as a carpenter bee comes by for a visit the hope is for the bee to touch the stigma first, hopefully transferring pollen from another plant for successful reproduction. But sometimes the big bumbling bee comes in HOT and presses the anthers down towards the stigma resulting in selfing.
Now onto our last flower insight for this post, the Caterpillar Scorpionweed, Phacelia cicutaria. We have three observations of this plant up on iNat. One from the Techahapi mountains spotted during our road trip from Joshua Tree to the Bay Area, another in Indian canyons outside of Palm Springs, and lastly in SoCal at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. So unlike other plant friends, this one has a bigger range, which extends from southern to central California and all the way to the Sierras.
The obvious first component people imagine when thinking about wildfire is heat. That’s exactly what causes this plant to germinate. Again with no standard category I might place this purple lady in the “abundant after a fire but present normally.” Southern CA botanist Tom Chester whose website we referred to when in SoCal places this plant in a similar category of “species that are always present, but are much more abundant after a fire.”
I love when the common name reflects a physical attribute, and as you can see from the photos this bebe is a furry fuzzy little dude! When you look underneath the flower, as one should always do, you can see the curly clustered flower beds that along with the hairs totally resemble a caterpillar. Our purple buddy here has four subspecies. While most people have seen Phacelia cicutaria var hispida on iNat there are three other variations (cicutaria, heliophila, hubbyi)
So whether or not a plant is germinated by heat or the chemicals in the smoke or is takes advantage of the altered landscape they are a fascinating group of plants. While there is much to be learned about these early colonizers and heat dependent flowers I chose I hope you gained a slightly different perspective on wildfires as a natural process in California’s natural history.
Happy Wildflower Hunting and Botanizing!
- Fire Followers, Los Padres Forestwatch
- Bay Nature: Treasure Hunt Fire Following Flowers You Might Find in the North Bay
- Fire Followers iNaturalist Project
- Bay Nature: What Wildflowers Tell You About the North Bay Fires
- SlideShare: California-Flora of Contrasts by Gwen and Phil Phillips
- Tom Chester’s List of Southern California Fire Followers
- California Coastal Commission, Natural History of Fire and Flood Cycle
- Characteristic Morphological features, Britannica
- Eucalypts and Fire, National Forest Learning Center
- Introduction to California Spring Wildflowers by Phillip Alexander Munz 2004
- Thompson, H. J. (1960). A Genetic Approach to the Taxonomy of Mentzelia lindleyi and M. Crocea (Loasaceae). Brittonia, 12(2), 81. doi:10.2307/2805207
- Jones, Cynthia S., and William H. Schlesinger. “Emmenanthe penduliflora (Hydrophyllaceae): further consideration of germination response.” Madrono (1980): 122-125.
- Cione, N. K., Padgett, P. E., & Allen, E. B. (2002). Restoration of a Native Shrubland Impacted by Exotic Grasses, Frequent Fire, and Nitrogen Deposition in Southern California. Restoration Ecology, 10(2), 376–384. doi:10.1046/j.1526-100x.2002.02038.x
- Keeley, J. E. (1995). Seed-Germination Patterns in Fire-Prone Mediterranean-Climate Regions. Ecology and Biogeography of Mediterranean Ecosystems in Chile, California, and Australia, 239–273. doi:10.1007/978-1-4612-2490-7_10