Sunday, April 15, 2012

Fire Loving

Sorry, spiders, as you know I don't keep house very well, but I do need to reach that book, Flowers Native to the Deep South by Caroline Dormon (1958). I haven't looked at my signed copy for years, actually, so the spider webs on that side of the bookshelf are deep. I used this book as a girl scout in a pine woodland summer camp and found that most of the wildflowers I could identify were restricted to roadsides, places where light could reach the woodland floor.

Dormon illustrated this book herself, with all but two specimens drawn from live material. I grew up in Louisiana in the early 1970s, years when wildfires occurred on the Kisatchie NF and the USFS didn't fight them indirectly. Just as in Missouri in the 1970s, active fire suppression regimes were in place in Louisiana. (Unlike Missouri, however, today, forestry schools in Louisiana continue to teach that fire is good for pine systems, but fire should be kept out of oak-dominated woodlands.)

In the foreward to Dormon's 1958 wildflower field guide, she writes:

It is hoped that this book will arouse renewed interest in the preservation of our rapidly vanishing wild flowers. From too frequent picking,
misdirected efforts to move them to gardens, forest fires and the onslaught
of rabbits and insects, some species are becoming rare.

By the early 1980s, following Dormon's assessment that many of these wildflowers were indeed becoming rare, the Louisiana Natural Heritage folks published a book of "rare wildflowers of hardwood forests in Louisiana." I have this paperback book, too, hiding in the spider-infested bookshelf with my bound Master's thesis and Pausanius manuscripts photocopied from the Vatican library. Notably, the photos in the rare plants book are washed out, not from poor paper quality, but from the photo quality itself: these photos of open woodland plants were taken in closed canopy forest settings which therefore activated the flash. Black background photos with washed out wildflowers searching for light. The reason that common fire-mediated Ozark woodland plants like Geranium maculatum and Spigelia marilandica are in the rare plants of Louisiana is precisely because of their setting. There was no fire there in the early 1980s. Of course, as an 8 year old girl scout, I didn't truly understand why these plants were rare, really, I certainly didn't know fire ecology back then, and I never dreamt that I would live in a place where "rare plants" like Phlox divaricata and lady slipper orchids were as common as red oaks in degraded Ozark woodlands.

Alas, I live here now, in fire-dependent ecosystems, and I am fortunate to spend my sampling hours and my private time burning woodlands and seeing the response of long lived perennial forbs sprout from the rich soils peppered with chert residuum. I've burned my own yard for the past four years, and this year I burned my front flower garden, rich as it is with G. maculatum, purple coneflower, phlox and a suite of sedges (wanting showy flowers in the front yard so the weed inspector will hopefully recognize the yard as manicured-ish). As expected, the Ozark woodland wildflowers in the flower bed have exploded in blooms and spread over the area, a sight I never thought I would see when I was a kid in Louisiana with the dire threat of wildfires killing fire-dependent flora all over the place.


Doug said...

I grew up in the rugged St. Francois Mtns of Madison county, but fate has since stranded me on a flat, subtropical, sandbar, aka Florida.

Your lovely blog sure makes me miss the Ozarks.

Allison Vaughn said...

Wow, what a culture shock you must be in! I will recommend that if you ever want to, say, hike Taum Sauk Mountain after living in the flats of Florida, hit the incline on your treadmill for a few sessions! I'm from New Orleans, the land of no hills, and the Ozarks whipped me into shape, esp. the St. Francois mountains country...Thanks for reading. I'll be sure to post more photos from that neck of the woods this year!