Chaparral succession

The Jesusita fire burned the West Fork of Cold Springs in early May of 2009.

On the 5th of June, it actually rained. Not hard, but for about 6 hours continuously; a lot more water came from the sky than is usual in June. The next day I was up Gibraltar and was surprised to see blooms.

On the burned over hillsides the Yucca were blooming. Perhaps they were blooming because of the fire, certainly all the leaves had been burned up, all that was left was rootstock which put forth a bloom. Plants in stress will sometimes bloom right before they die, perhaps that happened here. Still, it was amazing to see that anything was left alive on that denuded hill.

DrainageDitch2A week later we went up to do trail maintenance. All the chaparral shrubs appeared dead, just burnt trunks. The dead trunks were worse than nothing, they showed what had died. Any small forbs were completely gone. The landscape was barren, the ground black with soot. It looked completely dead.

RegrowthBut if you looked closely at the base of some of the dead trunks you could make out tiny patches of green. The roots were not dead, even if the trunks were, and already (less than a month after the fire was contained) new leaves were showing.

BrackenFurther down the trail tiny fern fronds were poking out of the earth. Can ferns grow from root stock? Or was this new growth from spores? I still don’t know.

I went back three months after the fire (mid August) and the landscape had altered. Every burnt trunk seemed to have a patch of green at its base.

At one spot I even found a Canyon Sunflower in bloom

It really looked as though regrowth were happening. It also looked as though this were all natural growth, not induced by any external “green mulch”.

The next time I looked at the trail was in mid-March of 2010. I was surprised at the riot of wildflowers on the trail. There were California Poppies

And Phacelias, fiesta flowers, woodmints, pacific peas, and on and on.

It didn’t look much like last year’s burnt over landscape.

A little further on I saw bay laurel in bloom. Now the bay laurel is not a forb, it’s a small tree, and last year these trees were nothing but burnt trunks. Yet the small green patches at the base of those trunks had grown and were already blooming. In less than a year since the fire.

As I leave the shade and come out into the sun the flowers change. Here are the star lilies, and beyond them blue dicks. And climbing over everything is the invasive bindweed.

The landscape has altered yet again. It has gone from barren, to having small green patches (at the base of burnt trunks) to being completely green now (well, except for where the trail runs, but that’s normal). There’s no shade yet, but there is ground cover.

There are greatflowered phacelias, and purple nightshades. And the Canyon Sunflowers which were so tentative last August have turned into green mounds, liberally covered with blossoms.

The trail moves out of the sun and into the shade of a north facing slope. It’s damper here too, and again, the flowers alter. There are more bay laurel, and lots of milkmaids, there’s a strange cream colored pea (which turns out to be a deervetch). And then I see a poppy, but not one I’ve seen before. A fire poppy, with a brick red bloom, and a much more traditionally “poppy” look than the California poppies.

Further along there used to be a luxuriant stand of bay laurel. The blackened bark has fallen from the dead trunks leaving a silvery trunk with three foot tall shoots coming up from the roots.

Hmm. I see no signs of bracken now.

The wildflowers died as the year progressed. First the star lilies vanished and the phacelias took over, and then they too died off. The canyon sunflowers didn’t die back, they just got bigger and bigger. The bay laurels grew taller.

I went back in January of 2011, and then again in February. Down at the bottom of the trail the bay laurels and sunflowers have grown so much that it’s hard to find the trail. They have grown out into large bushes which encroach and finally smoother the trail.

A little further up are the wildflowers I expect. The phacelias, the nightshades, and the California Poppies. Only, as I look at them closely, I realize that they are not California Poppies. They lack a ring underneath the flower, these are instead “collarless California Poppies”, in the same genus but a different species. I suspect I have never seen a true California Poppy on our trails.

A little further up I see a solitary Chia blooming. That’s odd. Last year I saw none on this trail, and the ones I did see did not start blooming until late April.

Even further up I see my first Ceanothus. Last year these did not bloom. This year they are all over the place (at least two species, judging by the flower shape). They have sprung from the old root stock. And here is a chaparral current already producing little currents. These, too, were not in evidence last year. But I don’t think they’ve come from old roots (I remember none from before and no old trunk is visible)And there’s a manzanita, the new green springing from the old burnt base, and already in bloom. And a holly leaved cherry, first one of those I’ve seen this year, anywhere.

Striking in their absence, there are no star lilies this year. Do they need the fire ash? But the fire poppies are again blooming, though there don’t seem to be as many patches of them as last year, and they are supposed to need fire too…

The bee-plant seems to be in bloom. Another thing that didn’t bloom until June last year.

All the other small wildflowers I expect are blooming where they were last year. Some, like the deervetch and the sunflowers are much larger than they were. Others, like the milkmaids, are just as common but no bigger.

As I go further up the trail I see more little Ribes shrubs (probably currents because I see no thorns). It looks as though they are colonizing this whole trail. I don’t remember any from before the fire (though I might just have ignored them).

  • Small green shoots came out of the rootstocks very quickly
  • As did bracken ferns
  • A few months later almost every burnt trunk was surrounded by green, and the canyon sunflowers were blooming
  • Ten months later the hillside was covered with green ground-cover, and many wildflowers.
  • The bay laurels were already blooming.
  • Twenty months later many other shrubs were blooming (or setting fruit)
  • The star lilies had not returned though.

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