Fighting fire with seeds: BYU restoring scorched landscapes after devastating wildfires
Using seed coating technology, BYU researchers are helping restore wildfire-devastated landscapes with native plants. Video filmed by Brian Wilcox and produced by Julie Walker.
Catastrophic fires in the West are burning hotter than ever, leaving paths of destruction through both human development and native plant ecosystems.
These charred landscapes, barren of natural plant growth, become a vacuum for the growth of invasive species like cheatgrass which, unlike more fire-resistant native plants, fuel fires and help them spread faster and burn hotter. If left unchecked, the process becomes a dangerous cycle of flames.
“If we don’t get native plants back on the landscapes, we’re going to have more and more fires and those fires are going to be increasingly destructive,” said Matt Madsen, BYU professor of plant and wildlife sciences. “When we look at our landscapes and how much has been burned, a lot of times we don’t even have enough seed to go around and there’s also a lack of performance of the seed that does get planted. It’s a really big challenge.”
Using seed enhancement technology never before used in rangeland restoration, Madsen and his students are leading an effort to reseed fire-scorched landscapes across the Great Basin with native plants. This technology includes seed coatings traditionally used in commercial farming (for food products) and other treatments that are specifically formulated for rangeland seeds.
How it works and which coating is used depends on the seed, but the goal is always the same: help the seeds get distributed evenly into the soil and give them the best chance for survival.
One example includes their work on sagebrush seed, which is small, fine and has an almost sawdust quality to it when piled up, which tends to clog up seeders and not disperse well. Madsen and his team combined the sagebrush seed with clay and other filler material to make pellets which then allows for more uniform distribution.
The team has developed eight different seed coatings they are now applying to the seeds of several other native plant species. After they lay down the seed in the fall, Madsen and his team of students return the following spring to check on emergence and then revisit in summer to see how growth is faring. Their work on one species, bluebunch wheatgrass, has yielded a 60% increase in plant emergence. On close inspection of the emerging and thriving plants, the seeds with the seed-enhancement coatings are the ones doing better and surviving.
“If we can get them to grow through the first year, they’ll be there on the landscape for years to come,” Madsen said.
What Blooms in Wildfire Burns?
Forest fires can appear devastating at first, but for the most part nature has its systems for resilience. Depending on how hot the fire was and what plants were present both above and below ground and nearby, vegetation will return in its own due course. In some cases, plants sprout that have not been noticed in years, and indeed are triggered to flower after the heat of the moment. Others take advantage of the open ground and fly in with fresh seeds. Still others have stored seed until the magic moment. Wildlife also takes advantage of the changes.
Lodgepole Pine – Pinus contorta – is a fire-adapted species. While the thin-barked trees are killed, thick “serotinous” cones have held seeds for years. Their cones have thick scales with spine tips which protect the seeds inside from mauraders and weather for years. When a fire comes through, the resin that has sealed the scales shut melts, and cone scales open wide, releasing winged seeds upon the wind. The delicate embryos fall onto newly exposed soil, which may be enhanced by ash, and quickly germinate. Ash often contains recycled nutrients and retains warmth which helps the seeds grow. Seeds germinate quickly, giving them a headstart among competing plants. Pines in fact need sun to grow well. A truly fire adapated species!
Mountain Mallow – Illiamna rivularis – often appears in great numbers after a burn. Affected by extreme heat, their thick seed coats crack, enabling seeds to imbibe water and sprout. These seeds may have lain buried for decades in the soil waiting for such a moment. Due to a prescribed burn south of Hoback, the slopes along the trail up Palmer Creek are now covered with 4-5’ flowering Mountain Mallow plants (photo above taken 7.13.18). Soon fruits, which look like peeled hairy tangerines, will split to release seeds for the next generation decades in the future (photo below). Note: In mountain mallow the seedbank is in the soil, in lodgepole pine, the seedbank is in the air.
Another plant that responds uniquely to fire is Snowbrush – Ceonothus velutinus. Hikers can see a profusion of Snowbrush along String Lake (below) and on the way to Taggart Lake in Teton National Park. This evergreen, resinous, sprawling shrub will shoot up new branches from old roots after a light fire. After heavy burns, it can also sprout from “Rip-van-Winkle” seeds.
Flowers blooming almost a century ago produced seeds that have been lying in wait until heat and sun stimulated them to germinate.
Others report a profusion of White Spiraea – Spiraea betulifolia – blooming (photo below) within the 34,000-acre area of the Cliff Creek Fire, also of 2016. This appears to be another species is “released” after a fire.
The results of the 20,000+ acre Berry Fire are visible from the Rockefeller Memorial Parkway (photo below) and Grassy Lake Road. The 2016 fire burned fast and hot in some areas forming a mosaic of impact. Notably, in some areas it burned through lodgepole stands that were recolonizing from a fire only a few years before. Ecologists and foresters are concerned that this unusual short “return” interval will be the pattern of future fires in this era of climate disruption.
Pinegrass – Calamagrostis rubescens – is a tufted, long-leaved grass that rarely blooms. While a common groundcover in the shade of a forest, it usually goes unnoticed by hikers because it is “just a grass.” However, with the stimulus of fire and sun, 2-3’ stalks of delicate flowers shoot up and flourish (photo below). Deep fibrous roots of Pinegrass are important for holding soils, especially when soils are vulnerable to erosion after fires. Plants are blooming in profusion near the parkway.
Fireweed – Epilobium/Chamerion angustifolia – is well known for showing up after fires. In the insulating soil, rhizomatous (underground creeping) stems growing 4-6” deep may have survived the above-ground heat to sprout again. Even one surviving plant can shed 1000s of seeds that can catch upon the wind, land, and germinate quickly on exposed ground. (Photo above shows both Fireweed and Pinegrass.)
Other plants flowering among blackend trunks include several members of the Aster Family which have deep roots and seeds dispersed by wind. Cheerful patches of Broadleaf Arnica – Arnica latifolia – and a strange hybrid, likely Arnica X diversifolia – a cross between Heartleaf and Broadleaf arnica, are growing in charred soils (photo above). Large clumps of yellow Missouri Goldenrod – Solidago missouriensis – was dense along Grassy Lake Road, brightening the dark scene (photo above). A mix of Yarrow – Achillea millefolium – and Thickstem Aster – Eurybia integrifolia – are common in fields right now, but they are also flourishing in the sun under dead lodgepole pine trees along Grassy Lake Road (photo above).
Silvery Lupine – Lupinus argenteus – seeds are “scarified” by the heat of fire, enabling buried seeds to germinate relatively quickly. As a legume, lupines have a mutually beneficial relationship with bacteria in their root nodules that can “fix” nitrogen. This provides lupines an advantage in colonizing poor soils (photo above). Their heavy seeds pop out of their pea-pod like fruits. A robust member of the Mint Family – Dragonhead – Dracocephalum parviflorum – (photo above) was a new species to this botanist. Apparently it thrives in disturbed soils. Patches of other common meadow flowers have retained a niche as well, including Oregon Daisy – Erigeron speciosus – (photo above) with its many narrow, lavender ray flowers (ray flowers look like petals). Many perennials have deep storage roots that are often insulated by soils to heat of fire (or the cold of winter.)
It is unclear to this writer how much of the open areas between forest patches of the Berry Fire actually burned, if at all. (Do you know?) Often meadows don’t provide enough fuel to carry a fire. However, embers often fly across roads, wetlands, and meadow, igniting trees despite the intevening “fire breaks.” In any case, this is what is growing in the meadows.
Common Yampa – Perideridia montana – has created a tapestry of white. Upon a walk through the area, one can see that many late-summer flowers which are common elsewhere as here as well: a hidden layer of Sticky Geranium – Geranium viscossimum, blue spires of Tall Delphinium – Delphinium occidentale, yellow sprays of Cinquefoil – Potentilla spp., orange-yellow Rocky Mountain Golendrod – Solidago multiradiata, and spikes of blue Silvery Lupine mix in.
Common grasses include: stiff spikes of Timothy – Phleum pratensis (photo below), Mountain Brome – Bromus carinatus (photo below), and elegant spikelets of Oniongrass – Melica spectabilis (photo below): (Note all the grasses pictured above are in bloom)
These grasses have dense deep roots or bulbs, as in the aptly named Oniongrass (below). Grasses have evolved to sprout from buds at the base of their leaves – an adaptation to both browsing and fire.
As for wildlife, signs of elk are frequent–they enjoy nutritious grasses. Bears will enjoy the storage roots of yampa come spring—or perhaps pocket gophers, which also eat yampa roots. A week ago, a pair of Sandhill Cranes was walking through the downed trunks, feeding on insects. Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers seek out burned-over forests as long as the bark remains. Using their chisel-like bills, these woodpeckers feast on insects feeding and breeding under peeling, split bark of weakened or dead trees.
Despite the stark appearance, all is not lost after a wildfire.
Much is being researched and understood about fire ecology. It is facinating to conduct your own observations. We have a wonderful opportunity to see the variations in progression at the Berry and Cliff Creek Fires, both of which were started by lightning two years ago.
“Sequoias Need Fire, But Fires Are Changing.”
“Historically,” the LA Times explains, “giant sequoias have been armored against fire — even dependent on it, said Robert York, an adjunct professor of forestry at UC Berkeley who has been studying the rare species for 18 years.” But these fires, York specifies, must be low-severity fires.
The faster, more intense fires created by a warming climate are a threat to giant sequoia trees. As NPR reports: “Sequoias need fire, but fires are changing.”
“In some groves, researchers are finding hundreds of seedlings where the Castle Fire burned with low-intensity, the kind of fire sequoias are accustomed to.
But in the Alder Creek grove, where the fire burned with ferocious heat, the team only finds a dozen seedlings the entire afternoon. Other groves look similarly bare.”
Even under normal conditions, around 98% of sequoia seedlings die in their first year. This year could be even tougher with extreme drought gripping the landscape.”
In a balanced climate, the planet’s largest and oldest trees have used fire to help them reproduce for thousands of years. This clip from Nature on PBS shares how this destructive force can bring for new life. Some background from nps.gov:
In the early 1960s, Dr. Richard Hartesveldt explored the connection between fire and sequoia regeneration. His small-scale prescribed fires followed nearly a century of fire suppression, and resulted in the germination of sequoia seeds and the recruitment of sequoia seedlings – something that had not occurred in the absence of fire.
Since those first experiments, researchers have further shown the benefits to sequoias from fire. Dendrochronology has determined that low intensity surface fires swept through the big trees approximately every 5 to 15 years. Sequoias rely on fire to release most seeds from their cones, to expose bare mineral soil in which seedlings can take root, to recycle nutrients into the soil, and to open holes in the forest canopy through which sunlight can reach young seedlings.
But fire is also just one of the ways that Sequoias can grow. Their cones can also open from the sun’s heat or seeds can also scatter after a cone dries out, sometimes with some help. More from the National Park Service:
“…Seeds may be distributed from tree-top level as the cones either open upon browning or are eaten by chickarees on the limbs of the crown; or, the cones may be cut or otherwise fall to the ground, where they dry out and spill their seeds upon a relatively small area of the soil or leaf litter surface. Each has advantages and disadvantages. A very important point here is that a high percentage of sequoia seed is dispersed by the activities of animals.”
2021 Update: This post has been amended with more recent resources and information.
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