One of the most dynamic landscapes is currently undergoing a process of plant succession – the ecological process coined by naturalist and writer, Henry David Thoreau, describing the opportunistic progression in which specific conditions favor the growth and proliferation of one species over another during the timeline of a habitat.

Types of plant succession are:

Primary Succession (from non-vegetated > vegetated)
Secondary Succession (from vegetated > changed vegetated)
Old-Field Succession (from abandoned farmland > changed vegetated)

With all the wildfires affecting Southern California this summer, it seems inevitable that ecological succession is constantly occurring. Southern California is experiencing a secondary succession, where the ecology responds to natural disturbances such as fire, flood, strong winds, or human activities such as logging and agriculture.

During a forest fire plants and trees are destroyed, however the soil itself is usually left viable. In time the burnt landscape develops into a grassland, chaparral, then eventually conifers and other hardwood trees may sprout up to repopulate a new forest literally arisen from ashes. Within this forest, short-lived shade intolerant trees die as the larger evergreen trees grow taller and fuller. Succession is a natural process that is necessary for biodiversity. Without succession, certain plant species could die out.

Photo: Julie An

Photo: Julie An

One doesn’t have to venture far to see succession in action. During a recent trip to the San Bernardino Forest I visited the Keller Lookout. Located at the 8,000 ft. elevation peak, Keller Lookout is a fire tower administered by the U.S. Forest Service. It was built in 1926 and has survived several fires. The most recent fire in the area happened in the 1990s, the fire’s mark is still visible as an unusual clearing of mature pine trees at the top of Keller Peak.

Photo: Julie An

Photo: Julie An

One of the most prominent intermediate species growing back into these clearings here in Southern California is the Chinquapin, or Chrysolepis sempervirens, which has edible nuts. Bush chinquapin survive fires by sprouting from the roots, root crown, and stump when aboveground portions of the plant have burned, regrowing from points deep in soil. Opportunistic intermediary species like the the Chinquapin illustrate how a destructive force like wildfire has a place in ecological diversity and reminds us as one door closes on one species, another may be opening for another to thrive.


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