Wildflowers Respond to Fire

by Rebecca Shankland
August 2000

What does an area ravaged by wildfire 23 years ago look like now? In a word-magnificent. Skeptics who are discouraged by the black landscape above town have only to explore the area around Ponderosa Campground at Bandelier. Created by the 1977 La Mesa fire, the lush open meadow south of the parking lot is now a rich array of yellow, purple, and pink wildflowers snuggled in with the varied native grasses that have not only returned, but flourished.

Curiously, immediately to the west (on the right of the Upper Crossing Trail) an unburned forest of tall ponderosas shades the ground-but here the ground is comparatively barren. The dense trees leave little room for undergrowth but instead create a thick amber carpet of pine needles.

Chris Judson of Bandelier National Monument points to this striking contrast between the fire-generated meadow and the relatively drab ponderosa forest and urges people discouraged by the Cerro Grande fire to have hope-not only will the land recover, but it will return with a new diversity of grazing and gazing possibilities.

Meandering through the meadow, one encounters a myriad of blooming wildflowers. I'm not sure if Bandelier has another small area with more species. In a two-hours' visit, I listed 34 species in bloom, and I didn't count the numerous weeds, grasses, or small trees.

The rainbow of current flowers is dominated by yellow. The all-time winner for Most Prolific is the humble golden-eye (Chrysopsis villosa), standing a mere 6 to 8 inches tall but carpeting the whole area. Other yellow patches are created by yellow puccoon (Lithospermum multiflorum), pingue bitterweed (Hymenoxys richardsonii), gumweed (Grindelia aphanactis), wild chrysanthemum (Bahia dissecta), salsify (Tragopogon dubius), goldenrod (Solidago sparsiflora), and mullein (Verbascum thapsus).

The color purple comes in a distant second with rose-purple geranium (Geranium caespitosum), shimmering lilac dotted gayfeather (Liatrus punctata), wavyleaf thistle (Cirsium undulatum), and the striking foot-tall dark purple shoots of spike verbena (Verbena macdougallii).

The jewel of the day is a wild morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea), shining in an intense sky-blue with purple lines and a pure white throat. Ivey's "Flowering Plants of New Mexico" describes it as "a weed of alleys, gardens, and waste places": clearly, one man's weed is another's treasure. Another glorious blue is a single plant of closed gentian (Gentiana bigelovii). This beauty has 10 or more gentian-blue flowers clasping the top of each stalk, looking as if they couldn't wait to burst open. Apparently they never do.

Several pinks appear to those who search hard. Tiny cosmos flowers, a half-inch across, mimic their brash domestic cousins. Four-foot tall clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra trachysperma) is a striking pink-but up close it's actually composed of white petals with lots of red stamens projecting outward like whiskers. Large banana-shaped seed pods point upward along the stem.

The most prolific pink flower is the graceful nodding onion (Allium cernuum), sending out a little fireworks display at the end of each foot-tall stem. According to Judson, nodding onion increases rapidly after a fire; the tiny underground onion bulbs were popular with Indians, who may even have set fires in order to increase the onion supply.

White yarrow, blue salvia, orange mallow, and two red flowers complete the rainbow. Indian paintbrush is blooming late this year, like numerous other plants that skipped the spring flowering on account of drought. Now they seem ready to make a better-late-than-never attempt. Scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) is always a delight, with its fragile stems festooned with five-starred red trumpets.

This meadow, a sprawling native botanic garden, is popular with wildlife. In my two-hour ramble, I saw two sleek coyotes, one doe, several Abert's squirrels (though they prefer the ponderosa trees), Western bluebirds, ash-throated flycatcher, Audubon's warbler, Steller's jays.

Woodpeckers also love a burn-or its aftermath. Judson said that after the La Mesa fire she could often hear the chorus of crunching bugs at work in the burned trees. Quickly the word spread to the northern three-toed woodpeckers that fast food was available. One pileated woodpecker-a great rarity-was spotted after the La Mesa fire.

Fire also produces "ghost trees"--Judson had the perfect word for the silvery streak that many have noticed in burn areas. A downed log may burn so intensely that the soil is literally cooked, destroying the nutrients and microbes beneath it. In a recent burn, it appears as a silver stripe on the charred soil, the perfect tree silhouette imprinted on the ground like a photographic negative. As the years go by, the surrounding soil recovers and produces lush vegetation, but the shadow of the ghost tree stays bare.

Along the ski hill road the seeded grasses are thriving in the areas where volunteers worked to rake and mulch. Most of the mulch is invisible as the emerald green grasses have responded to August rains and laid the ashes and cinders to rest. Burnt tree stumps still leave ugly scars, but the desolate gloom of those work days is already past.

Judson's point about fire is clear when you see both the unburned forest and the recovering meadow-from the ashes of the meadow arises a rich, diverse array of glorious vegetation. It will take awhile in our burned backyard, but have hope.