Chaparral depends on fire

Michael Raffety

Nov. 19, 2009

Chaparral is a plant community especially adapted to California’s Mediterranean climate — hot and dry in the summer and mild and rainy in the winter, though Southern California gets less rain generally than Northern California.

It is found in a narrow band along the foothills of the Sierra, but it’s especially widespread along the Central Coast, Los Angeles and San Diego areas. There is also a band in the Northern Coast Range extending north of San Francisco Bay. Hollywood, in fact, took its name from a chaparral plant called the California holly, according to the Introduction to California Chaparral by Ronald D. Quinn and Sterling C. Keeley.

Chaparral covers 7 million acres of the state. We hear most about the chaparral around Los Angeles and San Diego because of the huge fires that happen there, especially when winds blow from the east and pick up speed as they sweep down the mountains. These Santa Ana winds can be devastating.

It was an east wind that destroyed so many homes in the Berkeley Hills in 1991. But fire is a key element of chaparral. Most chaparral plants have burls that serve as a water reserve and will send out sprouts right after a fire. So will roots. Roots may travel 100 feet in search of water, according to Quinn and Keeley. They have measured some roots as deep as 18 feet. This root system holds a hillside together.

Low level fire will open up a dense canopy and allow germination of plants that only appear after a fire. The book describes and includes photos of spectacular fields of wildflowers that bloom in the chaparral after a fire. Some plants wait a century before fire comes along to help them germinate. There are even beetles that only mate on burning branches. The flowers that appear after a fire include poppies, whispering bells, lilies, snapdragons, phacelies “and dozens of species of small flowering plants found at no other time or place.”

Winter brings out another kind of bug — the rain beetle. Many people have seen these beetles flying around here after the first rain. Even more interesting is that there are 30 species of rain beetles. It’s the males that go flying. They are searching for a female with a good tunnel and good pheromones. The males die whether or not they find a mate. They have six days to do or die. Once they mate they have completed their role in the cycle and become another dead bug. The females wait until spring to lay their eggs, after which they, too, take a dirt nap. The larvae, however, can live eight to 13 years in the dirt, eating roots and digging around, molting until they become adults and are ready for the rain and speed dating.

To learn about beetle quickie weddings, the deleterious effects of modern fire suppression and the vast array of plants, animals, birds and reptiles found in this unique California ecological community, the Introduction to California Chaparral book is available from UC Press for $19.95 in paperback. It has 79 color illustrations, 56 in black-and-white and three maps in 344 pages.

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