Fire Poppy (Papaver californicum)

Great Scott! He’s found it.

Our indefatigable wanderer of lands of lesser interest, fumbling, bumbling, stumbling his way onward deep within the myriad folds of the wildfire wasted, drought stricken, flash flood ravaged Santa Ynez Mountains, having mustered the resolve and endurance to grimly persevere while laboring under the slight strain and insignificant suffering of various minor and unremarkable ailments and injuries to toes, feet and one knee, has nevertheless heroically triumphed in the face of such adversity and managed to locate the fleeting and ever elusive fire poppy, Papaver californicum.

Also known as the western poppy, but that doesn’t sound as cool, does it? And nor does it appreciate this peculiar poppy’s relationship with flames.

The fire poppy is often said to grow only after wildfire burns the land, hence the name. Perhaps that makes this particular endemic annual uncommon if not something of a rarity.

Whatever the case may be, it’s certainly not seen anywhere near as often as most other wildflowers in Santa Barbara County. The fire poppy is not a flower that one can plan a future outing to see during any ol’ spring and be guaranteed to find fields of them like California poppies.

Although with the significant increase in anthropogenic wildfires in our region, this may be less true today then in decades past. One wonders if humanity is aiding in the increase or expansion of the fire poppy’s otherwise relatively small population or at least bringing them to bloom more frequently than would otherwise happen naturally.

Core samples from the Santa Barbara Channel suggest that over the last 600 years large wildfires burned about every 65 years.

So presumably, having coevolved with fire, the tiny fleck of a seed from this tender small plant can lie about on the dry and hot forest floor, in this land of long summers and so little rain, for decades on end before then surviving the intense scorch of wildfire, and finally sprouting.

That’s an impressive feat. I can hardly last a day hiking out there in Los Padres National Forest.

This presumption on my part about the longevity of poppy seed appears to be true. In 1999, the Goat Fire burned 300 acres on Catalina Island off Southern California. Following that incident fire poppies were documented for the first time growing on the island.

The seeds had apparently been lying dormant for an extended period of time before being triggered by the fire. There was no prior record of their existence on the island.

Extreme heat and scarification of the seed coat trigger the sprouting of certain types of plants that generally grow after a wildfire. The fire followers or fire ephemerals, as these plants are sometimes called, because they pop up for a brief dance in the sun after fires, then disappear for extended periods of time until the next blaze arrives.

These sorts of events may perhaps break the dormancy of fire poppy seeds, but there is another much more interesting phenomenon which might better explain why the poppies grow after fires.

The burning brush and trees of a wildfire produce chemicals found in smoke that regulate plant growth known as karrikins, which are deposited on the surface of the soil. When watered in by seasonal rains karrikins stimulate rampant germination and vigorous seedling growth.

The Santa Ynez Mountains and San Ysidro Creek canyon above Montecito following the Thomas Fire, as seen on January 11. Montecito Peak is the prominent point seen frame right.

On another note that may also be of interest, these particular poppies featured here sprouted with the epic rainstorm that hit Santa Barbara County in the early morning hours of January 9, 2018. Recall that in my last post way back on January 8, I noted the following:

. . .as of this moment now, 10:34 1-08-18, it is expected to rain quite a bit. Evacuation warnings have been issued for areas burned in recent wildfires like the massive Thomas Fire as flash flooding is expected. Several inches at least are expected.

Estimated at its greatest intensity, the downpour dumped about a half an inch in five minutes and three-quarters of an inch in 15 minutes in the mountains immediately above town. Anywhere from about two to three inches of rain fell on January 9 alone. And anywhere from four to eight inches fell between January 8 and 10 in the greater region.

The rain fell hard on the Santa Ynez Mountains which had been left bald from the Thomas Fire the month before, as seen above. The water hit the firehardened hydrophobic soil and rushed off the 3,000′ slopes with virtually nothing to slow it down and no absoprtion.

These conditions resulted in a deluge of runoff which ripped down the canyons, overflowed creeks by some 30 to 40 feet as I’ve seen on recent hikes and then flushed out into residential neighborhoods in a wave estimated to have been 15 to 20 feet high.

This was the rain event that led to the Montecito Flash Flood or mudslides or debris flow, as it’s alternatively been called, which killed at least 21 people and destroyed at least 500 homes.

Montecito looked similar to a war zone afterward. The power and force of the flood is incomprehensible to me. The destruction it wrought is shocking in the true sense of the word. I return to the damaged sites months later and stand in silence no less stunned.

No words I could possibly scrounge up and string together can appropriately convey what it looked and felt like in the aftermath or even still to this day, and I’m not a survivor; I was safe and sound that night.

I do not wish to make a clumsy attempt at describing what Ive seen so I will simply just say this: It’s a four fingers placed to a quavering mouth with wide eyes sort of thing.

Maybe a real writer might come close to relating something of what it feels like, what it looks like, what it sounds like. So if you wish, you might read what local novelist TC Boyle wrote about the incident: The Absence in Montecito by T. Coraghessan Boyle.

Anyway. . .

Notably, fierce Santa Ana winds had whipped up the same evening the Thomas Fire had been ignited and right where it had started in early December. The strong, warm and dry winds had pushed the fire at incredible speed over drought desiccated land and helped turn it into the state’s worst conflagration on record.

We had to evacuate at four in the morning at one point. Here is a text I sent my wife and her “Holy shit!” response: Mandatory Evacuation Notice.

Then the next month in early January the aforementioned rain storm hit with a vengeance no less wicked than those winds.

And the most intense rainfall, of all the places in the entire county it could have happened, was centered in the bald mountains directly above Montecito.

From the ugly and powerful destruction of those ashes and flood waters rose the tender beauty of these fire poppies.

Click HERE to see a NOAA graphic of the wind and HERE to see a NOAA graphic of the rain. The odds of those events happening must be astronomical.


Joan Easton Lentz, A Naturalist’s Guide To the Santa Barbara Region

Catalina Island Conservancy

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10 Responses to Fire Poppy (Papaver californicum)

  1. Lila Henry says:

    Thank you for the beautiful photos of the rare poppy. And all the information. Hopefully they will bloom in gentler situations in future.

  2. Christopher Lord says:

    Very interesting. had no idea these flowers even existed thanks for the info Jack

  3. cindy delster reiber says:

    just read your blog on the fire poppy! I found this flower after the Jesusita fire on multiple sites; the connector from Rattlesnake to Tunnel, on Rattlesnake close to the meadow, and also on the Middle fork Cold Springs above Tangerine falls.
    So nice to read about our mountains and see that beautiful lil flower !

  4. rangerdon says:

    As always, a great post.

  5. Jack Elliott says:

    A general note here to whom ever it may concern.

    I just read Boyle’s piece in the New Yorker for the first time. I knew of the article when it first came out, but only just now read it a few minutes ago.

    I’m probably making far more of this than I should, but I’m sensitive to the issue of plagiarism.

    I noticed Boyle wrote: “. . .stoked by Santa Ana winds and fed with vegetation desiccated by extended drought. . .”

    In my post I wrote: “. . .The strong, warm and dry winds had pushed the fire at incredible speed over drought desiccated land. . .”

    I don’t mean to flatter myself as being a writer of any concern to the larger public, but I would like to make clear that despite reading pretty much the same, I did not lift that language from Boyle.

  6. Terry Ferl says:

    At last your voice again. I have missed it very much for all the days, weeks and months following the conflagration at Montecito and surrounding places. I kept looking for your journal entries, just in case they had missed my in box. The Fire Poppy entry is perfect and, doubt it not, original. Thank you for returning to be our eyes and feet in the glorious back country you’ve celebrated so beautifully in the past.

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