A wild landscape immediately after a recent fire can be a devastating and alarming sight—a moonscape that only contains charred skeletons of woody plants. However, just below the surface, seeds are germinating and beneath their blackened exteriors, shrubs and tree are resprouting.
Many native plant species are able to come back following fire, including shrubs and trees known as crown resprouters. The root systems of these plants store nutrients that enable them to survive and produce new growth from the root crown, the area between the root and shoot. Seeds of many native plant species are fire-responsive meaning that they only “wake up” and sprout after a burn. In fact, some of our most spectacular wild flowers are endemic fire followers, which means that they only occur in the post fire landscape, waiting quietly as seeds in the soil for years to reappear in massive numbers after a burn!
Below are five different ways plants come back after a fire (Halsey 2004):
- Obligate Resprouter: Shrubs and herbaceous perennials that depend on crown resprouting to recover after a fire. Examples include California scrub oak (Quercus berberidifolia), hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia), and toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia).
- Obligate Seeder: Shrubs and herbaceous perennials that depend on seed germination to recover after a fire. Examples include most manzanita (Arctostaphylos) species and many California lilac (Ceanothus) species.
- Endemic Fire Followers: Annuals that respond to charred wood and smoke from a fire to germinate from seed. Examples include whispering bells, (Emmenanthe penduliflora), and giant flowered phacelia (Phacelia grandiflora).
- Facultative Seeder: Shrubs and herbaceous perennials that recover by resprouting and by germinating from seed after a fire (germination can be fire dependent or not). Examples include chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum) and laurel sumac (Malosma laurina).
- Frequent Fire Followers: Annuals and short-lived perennials that exhibit enhanced germination after a fire. Examples include Coulter’s snapdragon (Antirrhinum coulterianum) and miniature lupine (Lupinus bicolor).
In open spaces and wilderness areas, the best way to support post-fire habitat is to avoid direct intervention and allow the land the time it needs to regenerate naturally. This approach protects the delicate balance of native ecosystems. The photos series below illustrates the natural recovery of the Deukmejian Wilderness following the 2009 Station Fire in the San Gabriel Mountains.
In select cases, active restoration by land managers may be necessary due to high fire frequency, the presence of invasive species, human disturbances, or other factors. This work should always be led by experts.
Private, home landscapes require a different approach and post-fire clean-up and restoration are often necessary. For a detailed checklist of post-fire recovery for home landscapes, we recommend the California Native Plant Society’s Fire Recovery Guide.
Deukmejian Wilderness, 2009, Immediately after the Station Fire. Photo credit: City of Glendale Trails and Open Space Program
Deukmejian Wilderness, 2011, two years after the Station Fire. Photo credit: City of Glendale Trails and Open Space Program
Deukmejian Wilderness, 2015, six years after the Station Fire. Photo credit: City of Glendale Trails and Open Space Program
Up next: Wildland-Urban Interface
Halsey, R.H. 2004. Fire, Chaparral, and Survival in Southern California. Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, CA.
This program was made possible in part by Edison International.
Illustrations by Edward Lum.