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Out of the ashes, Sonoma County covered in wildflowers

From darkness to light. From blackness to a riotous rainbow of color. The resplendent wildflower displays in Sonoma County this spring may be just the remedy for wildfire-weary residents.

In her poem Poppies, the extraordinary poet Mary Oliver gives voice to the redemptive power of wildflowers. Acknowledging that while loss is life’s great lesson, the “rough and spongy gold” of a field of poppies invites us to be happy, to wash ourselves in the river of earthly delights.

I was reminded of this poem on a recent hike in the Sonoma Valley Regional Park, a landscape that had been hard hit by the Nuns Fire last October. A welcoming committee of California buttercups (Ranunculus californicus), with their glossy yellow faces swayed along the edges of the trail, inviting me deeper into the park. The copious white heads of popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys spp.) gave the illusion of snow. Standing downwind of a meadow painted deep purple by early spring sky lupines (Lupinus nanus) I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The sweet smell of grape soda instantly transported me to Sunday picnics in the park as a child, eating white bread sandwiches with peanut butter and Welch’s grape jelly. Redemptive, indeed.

This scene is repeated, with delightful variation, throughout the natural areas that burned in October. Annual wildflowers that we are used to seeing in our spring grasslands in Sonoma County are blooming in droves, taking advantage of reduced competition from annual grasses and increased nitrogen from post-fire ash. The fires also “cleaned up” local grasslands by removing the flower-snuffing thatch of dead grass that can build up over time.

Chaparral areas that burned hot in the Nuns fire at Bouverie Preserve and in the Tubbs fire at Shiloh Ranch Regional Park now find themselves awash in cream-colored star lilies (Toxicoscordion fremontii), purple ground iris (Iris macrosiphon), narrow-leafed mule’s ears (Wyethia angustifolia), Diogenes’ lanterns (Calochortus amabilis) and the diminutive violet blue Danny’s skullcap (Sculletaria tuberosa). These perennial wildflowers are especially well-adapted to fire as their underground bulbs or rhizomes are largely protected from the heat. With adequate food resources stored underground, they are well-positioned to take advantage of reduced competition from shrubs, rushing to greet the sunlight now pouring through the opened up canopy.

Although trails remain closed in the upper chaparral areas of the Bouverie Preserve, hikers can head to Shiloh Ridge State Park, 93 percent of which burned in the fires, for awesome views of flowers in burned chaparral along the North Ridge Trail. Natural Resources Program Coordinator Hattie Brown also urges visitors to take a stroll on the Creekside trail where a series of new bilingual signs highlights the fire effects and the Park District’s land management response. These signs showcase everything from tiny orange eyelash fungus to the value of leaving dead vegetation in place for habitat.

Another group of flowers many are eager to spot in the post-fire landscape are what botantists and fire ecologists call “fire followers.” These are species that actually require fire to reproduce, their seeds waiting patiently in the soil often for decades. According to fire ecologist Sasha Berleman, some of the fire dependent blooms we may see between April and June are the fire poppy (Papaver californicum), whispering bells (Emmenanthe penduliflora) golden eardrops (Ehrendorferia chrysantha), and Kellogg’s climbing snapdragon (Antirrhinum kelloggii).

Perhaps the best chance to find some of these elusive beauties is to join noted botanist Peter Warner on Earth Day (April 22) for a “Fire Follower Flowers Walk” at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Sponsored by Sonoma Ecology Center, tickets for the hike are $10 and can be purchased at: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3331024. This is likely to be a very popular event so early signups are encouraged.

Another way to track both the flora and fauna that are showing up post fire is to check out the Sonoma County Burned Areas (2017) project on iNaturalist.org. Professional and amateur naturalists alike are posting their finds at https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/sonoma-county-burned-areas-2017-fires project.