Forbs in Fire
While fire is often associated with destruction, fire can also create beautiful, diverse landscapes such as prairies and longleaf pine forests. Although the temperate climate and native hardwood forests of the Piedmont Region make it seem an unlikely place for prairies to occur, they were once widely distributed across the region throughout North and South Carolina. Evidence of prairies and savannas in the Southeast was documented by several European explorers as early as 1540-1750. The first Europeans to document these prairies were Spaniards under Hernando De Soto in May of 1540. Evidence of the plant species and management practices that characterize Piedmont prairies has existed for centuries, however, this information has been largely inaccessible to landowners hoping to restore these diverse native grasslands. Here at Carolina Wildlands Foundation, we have an interest in closing this knowledge gap.
Piedmont prairies can be managed in several ways whether it be mowing, grazing with large herbivores, or burning. These methods will support the growth of native grasses and wildflowers. The method that is often regarded by land managers as the best management technique for promoting diverse prairies is prescribed fire. Prescribed fire is a planned fire that is conducted with the intention of meeting management objectives. Prescription burns must follow a specific protocol and require pre-planning for weather and safety conditions. Every condition is considered from the amount of fuel in an area to the direction and speed of the wind.
Burning mimics the lightening fires and prescription burns by Native Americans which these ecosystems evolved with over thousands of years. There are entries from European explorers such as Mark Catesby in 1720 describing the flames he saw in the prairies. In addition to the historical evidence, there is also evidence showing that fire benefits the growth and diversity of prairie plants by removing the dead plant material from the bottom layer of the prairie. Also, some prairie plants require fire for their seeds to germinate. Not only does the fire benefit the plants on top of the soil, but fire also benefits the soil itself by returning the nutrients from burnt plant material back into the soil over time.
This week was our first prescription burn of the year which covered approximately twenty-three acres across two different prairies. Each prairie was becoming overpopulated with loblolly pine and sweet gum saplings and had a thick layer of old plant material covering the plant roots. For these reasons they were put into the burn plan for this year. The process took approximately six hours and five people to complete. Each prairie was burned separately in small sections until the entirety of the prairie was complete. The flames consumed the old plant material quickly and crept across the prairie climbing up tall grasses with flames reaching over six feet tall in some places.
After the flames were out and the smoke settled, native plants remained. Many of the new plant growth of the season such as the coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) remained with little damage to the leaves. Other species that remained green were Oxalis species, Trifolium species, and various grass species.
While fire is often associated with destruction, fire can create beautiful, diverse landscapes such as eastern prairies — the most endangered ecosystem in the Southeastern United States. Prairies are home to several rare and endangered plant species such as the Schweinitzii Sunflower (Helianthus schweinitzii), Smooth Purple Coneflower (Echinacea laevigata), Georgia Aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum) and more. They are also home to a multitude of animals such as various grassland-nesting bird species, mammals, and insects including the beloved Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus), which is now listed as an endangered species. Fire has helped to create and maintain prairie ecosystems for thousands of years and continues to share a strong relationship with the forbs that live there – plants which are truly forged in fire.
Story & Images: Brianna Bergamini