With wildfires currently plaguing the western United States, one wonders if any good can come from these natural disasters.
History and science show that wildfires are not only beneficial for multiple ecosystems, but are actually necessary for the survival of several species of plants and animals.
There are some plants that rely on fires for seed germination and others that benefit from the nutrients of the burnt greenery and added sunlight in the aftermath of the fire. Below is a list of five different types of trees and flowers that – like the mythical phoenix – rely on fire to rise from the ashes.
Eucalyptus trees first came to California from Australia in the mid-19th century.
Sealed with resin, the fruits of the eucalyptus trees are reluctant to disperse their seeds. Although fire would seem harmful to the life of eucalyptus trees, it proves to be quite the opposite as the heat from the fire melts away the seeds’ coat of resin and awakens them.
The eucalyptus trees ensure that their fruit will be exposed to fire in two ways. First, by the flammability of the eucalyptus oil the trees secrete; secondly, by the slow decay of the eucalyptus leaves that fall to the forest floor and act as fuel for any fire that may come. Within weeks after a forest fire, eucalyptus shoots emerge from the soil. Thus, wildfires benefit eucalyptus by paving the way for seed germination, and by supplying fuel for the fires themselves.
Like eucalyptus trees, lodgepole pines require fire to release their seeds from their cones.
Wildfires allow lodgepole pines to grow by searing away unwanted overgrowth and diseased plants and letting in the necessary sunlight for the trees to flourish.
Lodgepole pines are native to western North America and are very useful due to the edibility of the inner bark. For survival, men used to strip the inner bark and eat it with sugar or store it for the winter. Many animals such as the snowshoe hare, vole, and squirrel also enjoy the noodle-like texture of the inner lodgepole pine bark. Wildfires especially benefit these pines by dispersing seeds and replacing a shady environment with a sunny one.
Unlike the eucalyptus tree or the lodgepole pine, the rare Appalachian lily, Xerophyllum asphodeloides – or turkeybeards, as they are more commonly known – do not need fire to regenerate, but do flourish immensely after a wildfire.
A study done in the 1990s by Norman Bourg, a PhD candidate at the College Park University of Maryland, showed a resurgence of turkeybeards in Appalachia after a wildfire in 1996. Bourg stated that no conclusive evidence had come about to show why turkeybeards flourish in the succession of fire. He suggested that it may be due to fire allowing for greater pollen exchange rates and additional sunlight.
Baker’s Globe Mallow
The rare baker’s globe mallow can only be found after a fire, like the California Bagley wildfire in 2012.
Extreme heat is an absolute necessity for the seeds of the baker’s globe mallow to germinate. From there, bees work their magic to pollinate the flowers, creating a spectacular spread of baker’s globe mallow.
The little purple flowers are a sight to see. Jennifer Poore of the California Native Plant Society describes the experience: “Baker’s globe mallow, a wild hollyhock borne in desolate habitats, produces its large, unmistakable rose-purple blooms from June through September in the areas that have recently burned. The post-fire bloom is a show that you wouldn’t want to miss. In fact, around here, there is absolutely nothing like it.” Fire awakens the baker’s globe mallow seeds from their dormant state, allowing the seeds to receive the necessary moisture to germinate.
Fire poppies are native to the California shrub land and are just one of many wildflowers that flourish after wildfires.
Recent studies have shown that the fire itself is not what awakens the fire poppy seeds from a state of dormancy, but the wildfire’s smoke is what causes the seeds to begin germination. The smoke changes the chemical makeup of the fire poppy seeds’ coating, allowing water to penetrate.
Although the Eucalyptus, the lodgepole pine, the turkeybeard, the baker’s globe mallow, and the fire poppy show the benefits of wildfires, wildfires are still a real threat and must be monitored. Today, national parks often conduct controlled fires to ensure the wellbeing of the forests and other ecosystems. To learn more about the benefits of fire on different ecosystems visit the Association for Fire Ecology.