Article: A Prairie Flower That Flourishes With Fire

Ecology, Wildfires // 10 mins

Echinacea angustifolia, or the narrow-leaved purple coneflower, was found to produce more seeds and be more genetically diverse in areas that burned compared to those that didn’t. Credit: Gretel Kiefer

As fires continue to rage across Australia, destroying ecosystems and killing millions of animals, it’s hard to imagine any good emerging from such devastation. But it’s long been known that some small plants can benefit from a fire, because they grow back faster than grasses and trees, giving them an advantage in the battle for resources.

A study published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences gives another explanation for that success, at least for one prairie plant that has been in decline: reproductive advantage.

Purple coneflowers, also known as echinacea angustifolia, produce more seeds in years following fires, the new study shows, not just because there are fewer competitors for resources, but because a fire “also changes the mating opportunities,” said Stuart Wagenius, a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Dr. Wagenius, who led the research, tracked a 40-hectare plot, or nearly 100 acres, of prairie land in Minnesota for 21 years as part of the Echinacea Project.

The study found that coneflowers produced more seeds and were more genetically diverse in plots that were burned every few years, compared to those where fires were prevented.

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Published on NPR on January 27, 2020.