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August 2020

Fires and Flowers – A Love Story

Brown-eyed Susans along the Red Rock Parkway in Waterton Lakes National Park

In late July, I got to return to my old stomping grounds, Waterton Lakes National Park, for my first summer visit in almost 30 years. I got my start there with Parks Canada as a summer naturalist in 1991. I was keen to explore, and to see what the park looked like after the ferocious Kenow Wildfire of 2017.

Brown-eyed Susans along the Red Rock Parkway in Waterton Lakes National Park

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. From the prairies to the high alpine, the wildflowers were off the charts, and as was the case when I visited Waterton in the fall a couple of years ago, I wondered if some of these flowers were fire lovers.

The answer is yes. There were Brown-eyed Susans (Gaillardia aristata) galore, and they thrive after fires, not to mention the aptly-named fireweed, which famously colonized the slopes of Mount St Helens a year after it erupted.

But the best discovery of all was the Mountain Hollyhock (Iliamna rivularis). I went for a hike with my longtime Waterton friends Edwin and Alice, and we waded through thickets of it up above our waists. Edwin said he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen it before.

Once I got home to Lake Louise, I eagerly looked it up on my go-to website for fire ecology, the US Forest Service FEIS site, and sent the link to Edwin. Here we discovered that “Hollyhock seeds remain viable for at least a few hundred years!!!” (the exclamation marks are mine) In a study cited from Idaho, researchers found over 100 hollyhock seeds per square foot in a mature evergreen forest, buried 5 to 10 cm under the soil surface. And the seeds need fire: “Seeds have a smooth, hard coat and require a heat treatment for germination.”

Joel and friend Alice among the Mountain Hollyhock. Photo by Edwin Knox.

 

It was wondrous to see such a beautiful plant rising out of the ashes, and showed that fires and flowers can be unexpected lovers.

Mountain Hollyhock in the Waterton burn. Photo by Edwin Knox.