Every time I think about how plants eat sunlight, I am transported out of my animal-body understanding of the world; and become more aware of the plants’ completely different way of living on this planet we share. Comprehending that flowers are created out of the fire-food of the sun only truly happens in my heart, not my head. Not only do they eat and transform this fire into food, but many flowering plants have also adapted to thrive in climates where wildfires burn regularly.
What does it take to evolve to survive a fire?
Baker’s Globe mallow, or Wild Hollyhock, is one such flower whose seeds must feel the heat of fire before they will germinate. Their seeds have been known to lay dormant for up to one hundred years waiting for a fire to cross their path, signaling them to open and sprout in the freshly burned-clean dirt. These seeds are memory-keepers, holding genetic knowledge of how to live and evolve in the extremes of the Earth’s climate. What can their eons of plant-gathered wisdom teach us?
Fire tolerant flowers don’t just survive—but actually thrive—in the disturbed areas that a fire has left behind. Less competition, and freshly released nutrients from the ash are some of the rewards. In fact, this ability to take advantage of fire disturbed areas was a key component of the success story of the earliest flowering plants over 100 million years ago.
After a fire, many of these “fire-flowers” that have been dormant for decades or more, will burst into bloom in mass, in amazing displays of color, blanketing the charred landscape. It feels like they are answering the devastation of the wildfire with a fiery passion of their own, bursting forth from the dirt in a riot of color, trumpeting a new cycle of life with almost unbelievable beauty.
A few years ago, I grew many medicinal herbs from seed, something I had never done before. Unlike regular garden vegetables, many medicinal herbs are basically wild plants, and their seeds are wild. Among other things, this means that they keep their seeds dormant until the conditions are best for their seed to germinate, unlike regular garden vegetables that have been bred to sprout as soon as they are planted. Many of the seeds had to be soaked and kept in the refrigerator for varying lengths of time to imitate winter. But fascinatingly, one that only comes out of dormancy after a fire had instructions to put them in an oven at 150 degrees for two and a half hours.
Some other plants that are considered fire-followers are fireweed, arnica, fire poppies and fire lily. Purple coneflowers, or Echinacea—a prairie native now found most everywhere—thrives when they live in an area that burns every few years, because the fire prompts them to produce more flowers and so they make more seed. Purple Coneflower, known for being a strong plant, grows even stronger when it survives a fire.
Purple Coneflower says to us, “My strength is your strength. Stand tall with belief in your own resilience. You are part of this Earth that will always abide. Let any fears you hold become merely doors for you to step through. The memories held in my seeds will lead you forward.”
Amazingly, it is also fire that has preserved the oldest flowers, the earliest angiosperms . Angiosperms are flowering plants, and after decades of looking for the origins of them in rock fossils, paleobotanists Else Marie Friis and Bruce Tiffany tried something new, and began sifting through charcoal residues. They found angiosperms that were much older than any flower fossils found before. It is almost unbelievable that these oldest of flowers have been preserved by something as destructive as fire.
“Wildfires will normally burn plants to ash, but where oxygen is limited, perhaps in a tree trunk, or beneath the litter of the forest floor, it also has the power to preserve. Heat vaporizes the moisture in the plant issue and may leave behind a black carbon skeleton, which can survive in geological strata for tens of millions of years,” says Ben Crair in the New Yorker article The Fossil Flowers that Rewrote the History of Life.
These early flowers found in charcoal are tiny, usually only 1 millimeter or less in size. When their images are enlarged so they can easily be seen, an unmistakable flower is visible, like it was recently alive. Fire is the ultimate ephemeral—not lasting, rapidly changing shape—and yet, it is able to capture the essence of an ancient flower and preserve it for eons in the form of charcoal to allow us to peer deeply into the past. Charcoal can become in this way another memory-keeper just as the seeds are, helping us imagine our possible futures by seeing our past.
Flowers in Fossilized Charcoal from around 100 Million Years Ago
Images from Oct 2004 American Journal of Botany
The early angiosperms learned to adapt, reproducing more quickly than their predecessors—the gymnosperms, such as conifers, cycads and ginkgoes—due to their short life cycle. This not only helped them take root and dominate the newly disturbed environments, but also fueled more rapid genetic change, allowing them to develop more efficient photosynthesis, transpiration and growth. The world they lived in was considered a “high-fire world” according to the geologic record of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods—from 175 million to 66 million years ago—and long after as well. For much of these eons, oxygen levels were higher than today, it was generally warmer, and there was lots of vegetation to fuel the fires. It is hard to imagine living in a world so full of uncontrolled fire, and yet without it, the flowering plants may not have survived. In his book, Burning Planet, Andrew C. Scott wrote that “Fire and evolution of flowering plants go hand in hand.”
In our culture we are conditioned to think of wildfires as so very destructive, something to be avoided at all costs. We talk about “the fires of hell” as our worst possible punishment and burning someone at the stake was one of the worst ways to be put to death in the European Middle Ages. When I have come across recently burned tracts of land, I have broken down in tears for what was lost.
But in nature, fire is simply one of the four basic elements, alongside water, air, and earth. Our Sun that provides energy to generate life on our planet is simply a huge fireball. Fire allows us to cook our food and it keeps us warm. Like the flowers, we learned to use the power of fire over one million years ago—one of the most important steps in our human evolution. We live in a symbiotic relationship with fire more than we realize in our days of electric heat. Our fires now are often unseen, and we tend to forget how critical fire is to our daily life; and even more, our own evolution.
But when did we begin to overly control fire more than simply using it and working with it? We do everything we can to prevent wildfires from happening, even though we know they are necessary to ecological balance. When we interrupt the natural fire cycles of the Earth, what are we throwing out of balance?
Flames are the most intense kind of fire. The slower fires of rust and oxidation; decay and decomposition, are also types of fires, breaking down what has been built up. Fire burns away the dross—burns away what is no longer needed—burns away resistance, and resistance to change. When the status quo has been preserved for too long, when things get stagnant, when new life and new opportunities are needed, fire goes to work, either slowly as decomposition, or fast with flames. Space is opened for something new to grow. The flowers are standing by, ready to step into the opportunity.
What does it mean to survive a fire and be burned clean? To be reduced to charcoal and burned down to one’s bare essential elements? Fire is so very terrifying, but what if we learned to better appreciate how it allows new life to form and brings new ways of being in the world? The fire-follower flowers want to share their memories with us of how fire allowed them to flourish at their very beginnings, all those eons ago, knowing we may need to make some leaps ourselves one day, into the unknown.
Wild Hollyhock says, “When the old ways of being no longer work, gather the wisdom of all who have come before deep into your heart. Let go of all you think you know and open your heart to listen. Unlock the ancient memories. Trust the wisdom of All That Is and know our Great Mother will hold you. The way forward is likely beyond your wildest dreams.”