New study —
What plants return when fire is re-introduced?

It has long been know that when fire is excluded from fire-dependent pine communities of the southeastern U.S. for more than about a decade, the herbaceous community all but disappears and gives way to woody vegetation. But is it gone forever? It has been casually observed that when prescribed fire is re-introduced into long fire-excluded native pine communities, many native species suddenly appear, seemingly too quickly to be a result of seed dispersal from other native sites. It seems that at least some native plants survive either as root stock or seeds in the soil, but this phenomenon of plant community re-emergence has hardly been studied in pine communities.

This fall the Fire Ecology Program began a study to quantify re-emergence of native plants upon re-introduction of fire to long fire-excluded native pine communities. Our approach has been to find such locations where prescribed fire is planned in the near future, set up pre-fire plots and census the vegetation, collect soil samples and try and germinate any seeds that are still viable, and then wait for fire to begin systematically observing the results. When new plants are found, we plan to excavate a subsample of them to determine whether they re-sprouted from surviving root stock or else appear to have germinated from seeds.

Fire Ecologist Cinnamon Dixon in a pre-fire plot in long fire-excluded pine flatwoods on the St. Joseph Buffer Preserve near Port St. Joseph, Florida.

So far we have established plots in pine flatwoods of the St. Joseph Buffer Preserve, Plank Road State Forest, and the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory, pine sandhills of Natural Bridge State Park and Ordway-Swisher Biological Station, and a mountain longleaf site near Weogufka, Alabama. We expect that the results of the study will reveal that, even if native pine communities have been fire-excluded for decades, there may be more to their biodiversity than meets the eye, and it may not be too late to bring back with fire.


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