Rambling LA: From fire, flowers

Posted on | October 24, 2009 | 1 Comment


Detail from the cover of "California's Fading Wildflowers" by Richard A. Minnich, UC Press. For more information, click on the hillsides.

By Ilsa Setziol

“WE GET excited after fires,” admits Ileene Anderson, a Los Angeles-based public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “In the chaparral in Southern California, fires burn down all that thick impenetrable shrubbiness. With that over-story cleared out, it allows for terrific blooms of annuals or short-lived perennials that only show up after fires.”

Below the charred skeletons of shrubs, hikers tromping in the Angeles National Forest this spring are likely to encounter a tapestry of wildflowers. That includes bulbs such as the intricately painting mariposa lilies (Calochortus plummerae) and petite wild onions (Allium praecox) and other annuals such the sensational fire and wind poppies (Papaver californicum; Stylomecon heterophylla). The latter resemble the common California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) but they are brick orange with more dramatic centers.

Some of these fire-following species persist as seeds for decades and only break dormancy after fires.  Others do grow in fire-free years but are far less common then. Some of these seeds are quite discerning. According to Ronald Quinn and Sterling Keeley, authors of Introduction to California Chaparral (UC Press), “Some species respond only to the chemicals produced when the wood of shrubs is charred, or to the gases given off from combustion….[They] are not fooled by an exceptionally hot summer, manual clearing or human manipulations.”

Among Anderson’s favorite fire-followers are caterpillar phacelia (Phacelia cicutaria)—its pale blue or lavender blossoms sit like heads atop chains of little fruits that create the impression of a caterpillar’s ridged body–and whispering bells (Emmenanthe penduliflora). “When the wind blows them in a mass and the flowers are getting dry, they make a tinkling sound,” she says.

These wildflowers are gorgeous, but ultimately their role is functional. They cover the soil quickly so it doesn’t erode when rain falls. Anderson says the flowers also serve as nurse plants: “They’ll provide a little shade and good wind breaks for perennial species to germinate and grow.” Legumes such as various lupines and lotuses will flourish. Plants in the pea and bean family host bacteria that convert nitrogen gas in the air into a form that other chaparral plants can absorb.

The fire-followers will linger for a couple of years, as many as seven for some. “Then they’ll disappear as we see it,” says Anderson, “They’ll remain as seeds in the upper inch of soils, until the next fire comes through.”

Copyright (c) Ilsa Setziol. All rights reserved.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Fire is integral to California’s chaparral. However, if under human pressure the landscape reignites more frequently than is natural, it risks permanent destruction.  Click the following link to learn more about how people are accelerating fire cycles in Southern California chaparral, in an article featuring Ileene Anderson, ecologist Jon Keeley of the US Geological Survey and The Chaparral Institute’s Rick Halsey. Keeley and Halsey will be speaking at a free public seminar on protecting homes and wilderness in the face of wildfires on November 7, 2009 at 6.30pm at Clark Magnet High School Auditorium, 4747 New York Avenue, La Crescenta. Sponsor: City of Glendale Public Works Department and the Theodore Payne Foundation. To download the brochure, click here.

Click here for the US Forest Service Celebrating Wildflowers page for the Pacific Southwest Region.


One Response to “Rambling LA: From fire, flowers”

  1. Western datebook: Living with fire | Chance of Rain
    November 6th, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    […] Rambling LA: From fire, flowers […]

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