If You Burn It, They Will Come

As spring deepens into summer, I’m always eager for the appearance of basket flowers. They grow in a large swath across the state, so I’m as likely to see them in the hill country as along local fencelines, but I’ve never found them at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge — until this past July.

The pair shown above were some of the last buds in a colony overspreading a berm that separates a small, water-filled ditch from Olney Pond. The berm itself is only about twelve feet wide; the basket-flowers covered it from edge to edge, and extended along the length of the berm for perhaps fifteen or twenty feet.

When I stopped there last October, that same area was covered with balloon vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum), a pan-tropical, introduced, and quite invasive plant that easily smothers more desirable natives. (Another species, the Chihuahuan balloonvine (C. dissectum) is native to Texas, but limited to Starr, Zapata, and Hildalgo counties along the Rio Grande.)

A month later, in mid-November, all that was left of the balloon vine was a collection of fire-scorched vines, seed pods, and seeds. Clearly, a prescribed burn had taken place: the smallest I’d ever seen.

It made perfect sense that fire had been used to clear the area, just as it’s used to manage much larger sections of refuges, prairies, and woodlands around the country.

Prescribed fires clear the way for native grasses and forbs to thrive, but they also allow for some surprises: acres of spider lily where none have been seen; blue star spreading across fire-blackened ditches; and American basket-flower, taking advantage of a newly opened neighborhood with surprising panache.


Comments always are welcome.



64 thoughts on “If You Burn It, They Will Come

  1. How about those twin towers of basket flowers?

    I recently looked into the status of the balloon vine and found it not so clear-cut. One article says this:
    “The native status of C. halicacabum is highly debated and its biogeographical history remains uncertain (Gildenhuys et al., 2013). It is probably native to the Neotropics, but is also distributed in the tropics of the Old World. Currently, C. halicacabum is regarded as being native to South and Central America while its status is questioned in North America (Rojo and Pitargue, 1999Gildenhuys et al., 2013USDA-ARS, 2015). Biogeographic analysis by Gildenhuys et al. (2015) gave unclear results for the overall native range, but suggested an alien status in southern Africa.”

    1. The basketflowers were intertwined in such a way that I originally thought they belonged to one plant. Not so, but they make a fine pair, anyway.

      I smiled when I came to this, in the section about control on the page you linked:

      “Small Cardiospermum invasions can be controlled using manual removal or burning (Subramanyam et al., 2007). Manual removal involves cutting plants at the base, enabling the top part to die off, after which roots are dug out, which is very labour intensive (McKay et al. 2010).”

      I’d say the managers at Brazoria provided a perfect example of the usefulness of fire.

    1. That’s one thing that makes basket-flowers so much fun. The can be elegant, or they can be frowsy. They’re tough, too. Accidentally sit on a broken stem and see what happens.

      I think the basket-flowers “taking advantage of a newly opened neighborhood” might be the botanical equivalent of a tear-down/rebuild, except they were kind enough not to put in another strip center. Which reminds me: the triangular pink building in Seabrook’s finally gone. Yesterday you still could see the cement block, tiles, and other such that were beneath that pink exterior.

      1. They took it down last Thur to much fanfare before on TV. At the end of all last week you could see people walking in and picking through the piles looking for a trace of tile or something as a souvenir. Connected memories die hard.
        ” botanical equivalent of a tear-down/rebuild,” exactly. Nature’s concept of revitalizing an area includes much higher emphasis of beauty along natural lines?

  2. Here’s a fun word, Linda, pyrophytes, plants that require fire to germinate. Lodgepole pines are an example. Native Americans were known to use fire often as a way to create healthy forests that would encourage game to come around. Smokey the Bear wasn’t totally right. –Curt

    1. Did you read GP’s post about Smokey’s beginnings, and the role of WWII in the development of suppressed fires? It was an interesting post. The importance of fire for more than germination finally is being recognized. Everything from prairies to longleaf pine savannahs depend on fire for their health, and in areas across the country these habitats are being restored and managed with prescribed fire. In fact, according to the book Rare Plants of Texas, a flower I recently showed, the scarlet catchfly, “responds favorably to prescribed fire and may disappear in areas of fire suppression.”

      There’s an excellent article here. And here’s one of my favorite science-meets-art-meets technology posts about fire adapted plants in California.

      1. Yes on G’s article. While I had written about the Japanese efforts along the West Coast, I hadn’t been aware of the Smokey tie-in.
        I first became acquainted with fire ecology in the 70s when I became active in the environmental movement. Around here, the forest service refers to good fires and bad fires: The good fires work their way along the ground clearing out the undergrowth and debris. The bad fires jump to the crowns, killing the trees. The accumulation of forest litter caused mainly by our suppression of fires are usually responsible for the fire getting so hot it jumps to the crowns. (Loggers around here like to claim it’s because we don’t let them log as much as they used to.)
        One reason that it is harder to do controlled burns is that so many people have moved into the woods. We are an example. We do a lot to ‘fire proof our property, Linda. For one, we remove limbs for about eight feet into our trees to reduce the possibility of fire jumping up. I weed whack all go the grass along the road. I had a crew come in and clean the debris out of our canyon this spring. And I had the logging company remove all of the limbs from the downed trees as well as the logs in the recent logging operation. Our insurance company says they wipe post a firetruck on our property if a forest fire comes near it. I have a 2,000 gallon emergency water supply. –Curt

        1. The same sort of property fire-proofing goes on in the hill country. The landscape’s different, but thick cedar poses its own problems, and in the midst of drought, people get attentive.

          I still remember one of my first lessons in fire prevention in west Texas: don’t park a still-hot car in tall grasses. That one never would have occurred to me, any more than I would have thought about a dragging trailer chain causing sparks that could set off a conflagration. I’m a little smarter now, although I do wonder from time to time what else I don’t know.

  3. Part of me hates the idea of a prescribed burn, but the bigger part realizes that sometimes one is necessary. That balloon vine looks kind of nasty! Exchanging it for basket flowers seems a better bargain!

    1. None of us likes the thought of fire, and we’re naturally nervous about the thought of setting one on purpose. But when we decided we didn’t want fire of any sort, and did everything we could to suppress it, we not only disrupted natural cycles, we made life far more dangerous for ourselves. One good reason for prescribed burns is reducing the conditions that contribute to wildfires. It makes everyone safer, as well as helping along the plant species that depend on fire to germinate and thrive.

      Besides — when land that’s been taken over by invasive species is cleared out, it gives native plants an opportunity to come back — or maybe even to show up for the first time, like the basket-flowers.

    1. If I’ve learned anything about prescribed fire, it’s that the people who are responsible for them are well-trained, cautious, and unwilling to do anything that might threaten the land or the people surrounding them. There’s always the possibility that something can go wrong, but when people are prepared to deal with a prescribed burn that doesn’t behave as it should, they’re also more prepared to deal with wildfires that erupt.

      People who toss lit cigarettes from a car, don’t completely smother camp fires, or neglect to keep brush away from their homes also need to be encouraged to be more careful. Even municipalities and utility companies can neglect basic housekeeping, and that’s not helpful.

        1. One of the best — that is, most well-written, most compelling, and most terrifying — pieces I’ve ever read about wildfire was published in the magazine Texas Monthly a couple of years ago. It’s not an easy read, but it’s well worth it. You can find it here.

          From the article: “I guess you know what a strong wind does to a fire. In dry weather, it will turn a little fire into a roaring monster…a roaring, leaping, hissing monster. “

  4. I love those basket flowers, so unusual. Sometimes a prescribed burn is necessary; it’s good to have the native plants thriving over the invasive ones.

    1. Your post about the supression of fire during WWII was so interesting, and a perfect example of good intentions having unintended consequences. I see that Smokey Bear has a page about beneficial fires now, and it’s a good one. I looked at your post again, and was struck by this:

      “Smokey’s message of forest fire prevention successfully raised awareness of the dangers of unattended fires—but is also thought to have turned public opinion against burns of any kind. Ironically, the bear helped put the brakes on controlled burns, which keep the amount of flammable brush under control and help encourage new growth in forests.

      While Smokey’s message has since been updated to mention “wildfires” instead of “forest fires” and to support prescribed fires while still preventing “unwanted and unplanned outdoor fires,” the “Smokey Bear effect” has been blamed for making U.S. forests less resilient in the face of climate change.”

  5. Lovely photos and surprising to hear that small fires are lit specifically in this small space.

    The Australian Aborigines have used selected fire burns for thousands of years and there are many Australian indigenous species whose seed pods are only opened by fire.

    Interestingly, I’d never heard of the word berm before. With nature lovers and a hobby farmer in the family, you’d think I’d know what bern meant. I didn’t and had to google it. Maybe it’s not a term used in Australia(?) I often find different words being used in the American blogs I follow (as well as different spelling of common words). Most of our terminology and habits/food are English, having been brought out by the white settlers in the early 1800s.

    (BTW We are having enormous interest in using bush food by our chefs and restauranters at the current time).

    1. Here’s a video of a small controlled burn at the Environmental Institute of Houston, on the University of Houston Clear Lake campus. It’s quite short, but it also includes views from after the fact, as the regrowth begins.

      Like the Aborigines, Native Americans used fire, too: to drive game, to provide visibility, and reduce the threat of wildfires, Even in areas that were sparsely settled and not prime hunting ground, major trails that followed rivers often were kept open by burning.

      You’d be surprised (or not) at the number of times I have to look up words from either Australian or British English. The richness of the language is wonderful. Eremophila recently put me on to Australia All Over with Ian McNamara, and listening to that podcast is an experience. Never mind the vocabulary — I pick up perhaps 30% of what’s being said the first time around. Great fun!

        1. That’s interesting. What differences do you see? Of course, thanks to advertising campaigns and popular entertainment, there are a lot of people here who equate Australia with shrimp on the barbie, and not much more.

    2. When I returned to New Zealand 20 years ago, I was puzzled by the references to berms. I finally figured out what was meant. I am sure we didn’t say ‘berm’ when I was a teenager in NZ. I had always used the term ‘verge’ but no one here seems to use that word anymore.

      1. I came across ‘verge’ defined as a shelf at the top or bottom of a slope for the first time this week. It did help to explain the meaning of an expression I often hear: being ‘on the verge’ of this or that. I’ve used the expression myself, but only with a vague sense of its meaning. Now, it makes sense.

    1. Balloon vine’s listed for Travis County. Another name for it is ‘Love in a Puff’ since its seeds are marked with what some think looks like a heart. It really is a pretty thing; when the seed pods dry naturally, they become parchment like, and clearly are something that Martha Stewart could make good use of. Too bad about its tendency to strangle native plants!

      I’m still try to decide whether to post my tale of the killer basketflower. I probably will, because it’s funny. Unfortunately, it’s just as embarassing…

    1. It would have been nice to find them when they still were in full bloom. It would have been even nicer to have a vantage point for a better photo of the spot as a whole, but there were unseen alligators grunting at one another in the canal and a couple floating around in the pond, so I was unwilling to take even a single step into the brush. I’m willing to sacrifice for my art by getting up early or driving hours to get to a place, but confronting alligators isn’t my thing.

  6. Controlled burns, with the emphasis on controlled, are vital in the maintenance of many different biomes, especially grasslands. We will need to burn at SpruceHaven in a couple of years time. The problem seems to be these days that prolonged drought has rendered everywhere so dry that a few errant sparks can result in a conflagration. We can only control what happens on the ground, and try to select the best weather and wind conditions, but airborne sparks can modify the “best laid plans of mice and men” in a hurry.

    1. In two years’ time, the situation may be quite different. We’ve been edging toward drought ourselves, but just now drought is the last thing on anyone’s mind, given days of rain behind us and increasing rain continuing. Of course, in Texas, floods secondary to tropical systems often ease drought, so there’s nothing unusual about that. I hope you’ll have improving conditions, and no weather trauma to go along with them.

      I went through a fire-training workshop a couple of years ago, and was impressed by the number of factors taken into account when a burn is scheduled: not only wind and temperature, which are obvious, but also plant moisture content, humidity, and so on. Those who volunteer to help out know that it always will be a last minute decision. It’s simply part of the deal.

    1. I first learned about controlled burns in relationship to prairies, so I was surprised to find it’s used in other settings, as well. Of course, some trees and plants have evolved in fire-dependent ways, and they profit from its reintroduction. There’s certainly a lot to learn about such burns, especially when it comes to the ways they benefit the environment.

      One of my other readers had the problem you describe. I can’t remember how she solved it, but I try to find the answer for you.

    1. Thank you, Pete. This involved a double surprise: first, discovering that the burn had taken place, and then finding the basket-flowers. It was a perfect illustration of the dynamic I’ve read about — that removing invasives makes room for the natives. I just didn’t expect that native to show up!

  7. Fires galore in Australia right now, even though it’s early spring. It always amazes me how fast the forest return after a fire. Trees that seem totally burnt-out suddenly shoot out with branches and leaves.
    Of course eucalypts are especially fond of fire as the oil burns fiercely. Bush-fires are generally not welcome and justly feared.

    1. The first time I watched a prairie regenerate after a prescribed burn, I was astonished at the speed with which it happened. Only a few days were needed for the first shoots to appear, and after a week the regrowth was remarkable.

      I hadn’t thought about the oil in eucalyptus. Your mention of it reminded me of our pitch pine. I wondered if it would be as flammable. Apparently the trees tend to be fire resistant themselves, but their pine knots, high in resin content, were sometimes fastened to poles and used as torches at night.

  8. It is true that burning brings back many plants that have not been seen in decades or maybe even much longer. I think that a burn reduces the competition of other plants and thus gives the lesser ones a chance to grow again. Prairies are truly grasslands of wonder.

    1. I don’t fully understand all the effects of fire, but it certainly releases nutrients into the soil, discourages the growth of woody and invasive species, and encourages native grasses and forbs. I have read that burning smaller sections on a regular rotation can be important for the health of insect communities, and presumably for other creatures as well, since it allows them to move to unburned areas to survive. It’s a complicated matter, but it’s fascinating to follow the work that the experts are doing, and to see the results.

    1. The buds are somewhat thistle-like, aren’t they? From a distance, it can be easy to confuse them. Up close, there are some obvious differences — especially the absence of prickly stems and leaves — but the colors they share are delightful.

  9. I love the name basket flower. It’s a perfect name and really lovely. And those others — they remind me of the Chinese lantern blooms I see here, but duller. You should write a wildflower book with your poetry. Just saying.

    1. I knew there was another plant that resembled the balloon vine, but I couldn’t remember it’s name — Chinese lantern it is. It’s a beautiful thing when the papery outside turns into that netting-like business that surrounds the seed. The basket flower’s ‘basket’ that holds the bloom is equally complex and fun. After the bloom is done and the seeds begin to form, the basket is a wonderful addition to dried arrangements. I actually dried a few of the flowers two or three years ago, and they’re still holding their color.

    1. That’s interesting. I’ve heard Gaillardia referred to as Indian blanket and fire wheel, but I haven’t heard basket flower. It’s a good reminder of the importance of the scientific names; the common names can vary substantially from one area of the country to another.

      Buds like these are thistle-like, but once they’re in full bloom, the resemblance lessens. They once were in the same botanical family as bachelor buttons, and it’s easy to see that similarity — at least, for me.

    2. I just found some photos of thistles in my files, and I’m willing to amend what I said about the basketflower/thistle resemblance. We have a couple of thistle species that don’t look so much like the basketflower, but we have at least one that’s almost a dead ringer. Amazing. It may be that I tend to focus on the ‘basket’ rather than the bloom.

  10. I am not aware of any controlled burns here in the northeast. We are fortunate that they don’t happen accidentally very often. We are mostly forested and that would be difficult. But we do have controlled mowings which keep meadows from becoming forests.
    That’s a lovely portrait of the basket flowers.

    1. Interestingly, controlled burns are one of the primary tools being used here in restoration of the longleaf pine forests. Of course, those trees are adapted to fire and require it for their health. That may not be at all true for trees in your area. There are burns used in other forests, though. When I was in Arkansas, I came across forests where prescribed burns had taken place; I confirmed that with forestry guys I came across. Montucky has talked about controlled burns in his Montana territory, too, and there was a lot of griping a couple of years ago after some bad California fires when controlled burns that were supposed to have taken place had been put off because there weren’t funds.

      I do love the delicacy of these basket-flower buds. Their stems aren’t at all delicate. I dropped down to the ground one day without seeing a broken one about twelve inches tall, and it went through my jeans, my underwear, and right into my cute little rear end — about a half inch. Yikes! I made sure my current tetanus shot was up to date, and then prayed it wouldn’t get infected. I could just imagine trying to explain that one to a doctor. If I ever think I could stand the embarassment, I might write about that one.

      1. I believe most living pines are fire resistant. Just as with collected fallen branches and dried undergrowth, a dead pine burns very well as we have found in years of using it as kindling. I remember that you often run across forestry and other environmental workers. I rarely do which is surprising since the forest where I most often spend my time, Quabbin’s surrounds, is highly managed.
        I’m sure your readers would have empathy rather than ridicule for such a thing. It could happen to any of us. A half inch is pretty deep and a doctor’s visit might have been a good idea. They need a good laugh once in a while. I’ve had similar injuries, although not to my rear, when kneeling on sharp rocks or broken branches, raspberry canes, and the occasional broken glass. Like you, I always make sure there won’t be an infection. We enthusiastic photographers need to look before we leap.

        1. It’s the humor I’d be going for. Writing a humorous tale’s harder than telling one in person, but this one’s almost as good as the time I fell off the pogo stick.

  11. The fire-ravaged west needs more prescribed burns, but things are beginning to change. The photo is beautiful, and I’m proud to say that though I’ve never seen a basket flower, I was pretty sure that was what I was looking at, just from seeing them here! ;-)

    1. Isn’t it funny how we can come to know a plant just from its ‘publicity’? There have been several flowers, like the white prickly poppy, that I searched for several years, all the while seeing their photos again and again. The first white poppies I saw were in a clump along TX35, and I was going 65mph when I spotted them. There was no question in my mind what they were; when I slammed on the brakes and backed up (cautiously, I might add) I discovered I’d been right. Amazing.

    1. I was surprised to learn how many small pocket prairies and such are burned. Of course, when I was a child it was common practice to burn leaves in the fall, and the scent of burning leaves remains a favorite scent. I can’t remember one of those fires ever getting out of control, although I suppose it happened. In any case, the prescribed burns always are supervised by people who really do know what they’re doing — and everyone learns from those times when things go off the rails a bit.

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