Thriving After Fire – Rare plants and the biologists who search for them

Fire Adapted Hudsonia montana, mountain goldenheather, thrives after wildfires on Shortoff Mountain in the Grandfather Ranger District.  Cooperation between the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Nature Conservancy helps document their persistence following spring fires.  

Three liters of water barely made a dent in my thirst the first hot September day of monitoring rare plants on Shortoff Mountain.  So, the second day I brought 4 liters and an umbrella to create my own shade.  As we walked in silence, dripping with sweat, back down to the truck, my pants were shredded at both knees from crawling through thorny brush and my umbrella was broken on one side.   But I was smiling.

Earlier that day we had spent hours walking near the edge of Shortoff Mountain in Grandfather Ranger District looking for – and finding in abundance – Hudsonia montana.  This scrubby little plant, commonly known as mountain golden heather, clings to the rocks almost as close to the edge of a cliff as one can get.  It’s a dare devil plant sending USFS botanist, Gary Kaufman, into billy-goat mode as he very carefully picks his way up the cliff side counting plants.

Our goal was simple: use the maps created previous years to visit the areas on Shortoff mountain known to have the golden heather, count the patches of plants using a size-class system and help estimate their current numbers.  But why do this now, on a hot September day when summer seems never ending?  Because the plants were burned earlier this year by wildfires and biologists charged with protecting this federally listed species need to know the impacts of the fire.

Shortoff mountain has burned on average at least once every decade for hundreds of years.  It’s prominent rock outcrops, Table Mountain pine, and bunchgrasses are adapted to the frequent lightning-ignited fires.  The little plant we were looking for, Hudsonia, is no different.  It thrives in this fire adapted ecosystem and has found its niche, only growing in two counties in North Carolina.  In past years there have been dramatic increases in the plants post-fire.  It’s kind of like how cutting your grass with a lawn mower helps the grass grow back thicker.  Except in this case, Hudsonia grows back after fire and creeps further into and over neighboring rocks and mossy areas.

Once we got back to the truck the second day, botanists from the USFS and US Fish and Wildlife Service planned to come back for a third day to sample a few more areas of plants.  What we had seen so far was promising, as expected the Hudsonia as well as other fire adapted plants like little bluestem were growing well.  I hope you enjoy this short video showing the Hudsonia and the plants on Shortoff thriving after the spring wildfire.


A Tale of Two Rare Plants

In the last month, I have had to pleasure of going out to the woods with the National Forests in North Carolina ecologist twice to help the recovery of two rare species on the Grandfather Ranger District with very different life histories.

First, we visited the Federally Listed Mountain Golden Heather (Hudsonia montana) at a high elevation site on the Grandfather Ranger District. Mountain Golden Heather, listed as Threatened in 1980, is endemic to the district where it is only known to occur in two sites. Golden Mountain Heather is a fire-adapted species that needs full sun and bare mineral soil to germinate. It is found on rocky, open ridges where lightning-strikes were historically common. Without fire, the species is quickly overtopped by taller shrubs and trees.

Unscathed Golden Mountain Heather follow a prescribed burn

Unscathed Golden Mountain Heather after a wildfire

In 2007, an intense summer wildfire burned through one of the Golden Mountain Heather populations. Surveys following the fire found a 10 to 100-fold increase in the number of plants. The second population, however, has not seen the intense heat needed to clear competing growth in decades. Recently, the location was incorporated into a prescribed burn unit as part of the Grandfather Restoration Project. Under the guidance of US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Forest Service biologists, we went out to that site to open up the area ahead of the next prescribed burn. By simply removing select surrounding shrubs and pine trees, we increased the available habitat for the species and set it up for the prescribed burn planned for next winter. We targeted plants that were starting to overtop Golden Mountain Heather as well as those that were blocking wind-borne seed dispersal into nearby suitable habitat.

Mountain Golden Heather habitat after removing select shrubs and pines

Mountain Golden Heather habitat after removing select shrubs and pines

Next, we visited the State Listed Endangered Northern Oconee Bells (Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla) at a low elevation stream-side site on the Grandfather Ranger District. Found only in McDowell County, this rare plant has an even narrower range than Golden Mountain Heather, but a very different life history. Northern Oconee Bells is restricted to the moist slopes of steep ravines, where fire is naturally excluded. It requires shade, good drainage, and bare mineral soil to germinate. Bare mineral soil in these environments is created where the ground is too steep to hold leaf litter, but where Northern Oconee Bells can still find a small roothold.

Northern Oconee Bells in bloom

Northern Oconee Bells in bloom

Unfortunately, Northern Oconee Bells has limited reproduction by seed in its natural environment. Although there is suitable habitat close-by, the species is limited to a small area of that available habitat. To help the population recover, the US Forest Service is working with a former chemistry professor from UNC who has extensively studied reproduction in Northern Oconee Bells. With a permit from the NC Department of Natural Resources, and working under the guidance of the National Forests in NC ecologist, he will collect a limited amount of seed from this population of Northern Oconee Bells this year. He will propagate the species at a nearby site and replant the seedlings in the suitable habitat upstream from the existing population in 3 years. With greater numbers of plants on the site, the species will be better protected from population loss.

Habitat of Northern Oconee Bells

Habitat of Northern Oconee Bells where seed collection will take place

We hope that these efforts will help to maintain viable populations of both the Golden Mountain Heather and Northern Oconee Bells into the future.