Thoughts on Rare Lily Ojai Fritillaria and Indian Fire

Earlier this year in March, out scampering around in the Los Padres National Forest, I stumbled across a rather impressive stand of a rare wildflower, Fritillaria ojaiensis or the Ojai Fritillaria lily.

I had previously noted this Seldom Seen Slim of Santa Barbara County wildflowers on this here blog in 2015: Fritillaria Ojaiensis, Rare Wildflower.

The U.S. Forest Service describes this plant as being “critically imperiled.” I wonder why it’s so imperiled.

I assume habitat loss is one problem, which seems to be the ever increasing problem for much of the nation’s wildlife.

I’m going out on a limb here, admittedly, in further pondering the issue based on this assumption, but I wonder if the loss and absence of Native American forest management practices or what is often called “traditional ecological knowledge” has played a role in this flower becoming critically imperiled and rare.

This may be seen as rank speculation, but I’m not advancing a theory, and this weblog is an open journal of sorts where I ponder my surroundings, and so the following might better be seen as merely the inner workings of one man’s mind in response to what he reads and what he experiences in nature. Something like this here other post: Mastodon & Mammoth Sign: Reading Trees in the Santa Ynez Mountains

California at the time of Euro-American contact was a blooming garden of sustained abundance brought about not just by nature alone, as is commonly believed, but encouraged and fostered and cared for by many generations of Indians through thousands of years. (Anderson)

California was a botanical wonderland prior to Euro-American contact not because it was a so-called pristine “wilderness” that was unmolested by humanity, but because California’s original or native human inhabitants made it so by their own hand. And fire was their favored tool of choice.

“Fire was the most significant, effective, efficient, and widely employed vegetation management tool of the California Indian tribes,” M. Kat Anderson writes in “Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources.”

Native burning practices tended to maintain a clear understory beneath the canopy of oak woodland, which is precisely where the Ojai Fritillaria lily seems to like growing.

The forests of California prior to Euro-American contact were far more open and park-like in their character than what we see today, because for hundreds if not thousands of years, Natives had routinely burned the land with light intensity blazes every few years to remove dead forest litter, thick brush, senescent growth and to encourage the sprouting of fresh crops of culturally important plants.

After wildfires like the Day in 2006 and the Zaca in 2007, we read stories of the Forest Service hunting out Chumash rock art sites deep in the Santa Barbara backcountry that had previously been concealed by thick chaparral and we see headlines such as, “Long-hidden sites emerge as archaeologists explore burned-out Santa Barbara County backcountry.” Local outdoor adventure scribe, Chuck Graham, writes in Noozhawk:

“The fires have exposed long-hidden rock art where old, concealed trails lead to previous sites unseen. … Most of the old trails exposed are those of Native Americans.”

Well, an inquisitive mind might wonder why were those important sites covered in dense impenetrable forest today before the fire, but were obviously open for travel in prehistoric times.

Fire is the probable answer. But not lightning because it did not strike often enough. And the Chumash likely were not out pruning trails. Anderson cites Native American Rosalie Bethel, North Fork Mono, on the use of Native fire:

“They burned around the camping grounds where they lived and around where they gathered. They also cleared pathways between camps.”

Anderson notes:

“One can discern how different the vegetation was when Indians were the sole inhabitants by walking the land after a catastrophic fire. Old village sites reappear where impenetrable chaparral lay before the fire. Sandstone cave areas with indigenous pictographs are exposed after coastal scrub is burned back by wildfires.”

When the use of fire was prohibited by Americans some time ago and the focus became fire suppression, as carried out by the US government at a military-industrial scale to snuff out all wildfire, natural and anthropogenic, the forest began to close in, biodiversity tended to waned, homogeneity tended to increase, and the botanical composition of the land or habitat was radically altered.

“Fire in natural, as in cultural, systems is as effective an agent by being withheld as by being applied,” Stephen Pyne writes in “Fire In America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire.”

Fire suppression has been no less effective in altering the lands we see today than the use of fire had been in altering the lands Native Americans saw in their day, because fire is an agent of great environmental change.

“In many environments fire, anthropogenic or natural is the controlling agent of ecological dynamics, exerting an inordinate influence on the composition of flora and fauna, on their historical arrangements, and on their contemporary energetics.”

Pyne on the drastic change to the land brought about by Native fire:

“So extensive were the cumulative effects of these modifications that it may be said that the general consequence of Indian occupation of the New World was to replace forested land with grassland or savannah, or, where the forest persisted, to open it up and free it from underbrush.”

Local ethnographer, Jan Timbrook, and John R. Johnson and David D. Earle on the use of fire by the Chumash in Santa Barbara County:

“It seems likely that the Santa Barbara coast in pre-European times was dominated by grassland and oak savanna. … Indian burning may also have been an important factor in maintaining the openness of oak savanna in coastal areas.

(Vegetation Burning by the Chumash [1982])

The absence of Native fire from the land for so long and policies of fire suppression have had profound consequences.

“The hands-off approach to management of wilderness preserves,” writes Anderson, “is jeopardizing the long-term stability of many plant communities.”

And so it is that I wonder about the Ojai Fritillaria lily’s critically imperiled state.

This season I “discovered” a stand of no less than 66 individual plants growing in the Santa Ynez Mountains along the headwaters of a creek draining the north slope of the range.

That’s the number at which point I stopped counting, surely there are more growing at this specific site and I imagine many more as well at other sites in the same canyon lower in the watershed.

About two thirds of the plants were in active bloom while the remainder were showing only a leaf or two and had not yet reached florescence.

It was a nice find growing under the canopy of an oak woodland where the understory was notably open and free of brush.

The plants were growing in habitat that I imagine would have been far more prevalent in prehistoric times when the land was under Native American management.

And so it is I wonder about the Ojai Fritillaria lily’s critically imperiled state.

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16 Responses to Thoughts on Rare Lily Ojai Fritillaria and Indian Fire

  1. Tom Bolton says:

    Hi Jack,

    We are interested in doing a story on the vendor fee-collection scam in the Santa Ynez Recreation area that you wrote about recently. Would you be willing to be interviewed??

    If so, please send me the best email and/or phone number to contact you.

    Best,

  2. rangerdon says:

    Well-put thoughts on native practices of living with the land, Jack. And a beautiful photograph

  3. Reece M says:

    Amazing write up!

  4. I am very skeptical about the claims that we don’t have enough fire nowadays to maintain a “healthy” ecosystem. For all we know, the contrary is true. Chaparral shrublands require 15-25 years at the very least to fully recover after catastrophic fires. We have many areas that burned far more often, leading to type conversion (invasive, even more flammable plants take over).

    The “sweet spots” of California’s inhabitable areas that were once home to (I’m not sure) about 150000 Californian Indians are now home to about 40 million people. I don’t think this is the same ecosystem than what it once was.

    And then add climate change and global warming to this. Here in San Diego County, I’m seeing an abundance of wildflowers this year, many of them in places where I have never seen them before (better displays than in 2017). The winters of 2012-2016 were all too dry, so was 2018. In cooler climates and with more reliable winter rains, all plants would have fared much better in the past.

    All these factors combined make me believe that fire MAYBE was a factor in small areas, but this “solution” just doesn’t scale to the current climate, population density, and the threat to native plants by way too many human-induced wildfires.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Hey Alexander. Thanks for the comment.

      “I am very skeptical about the claims that we don’t have enough fire nowadays to maintain a “healthy” ecosystem. … this “solution” ”

      Just to be clear, I was not speaking to that idea at all nor suggesting any solution nor suggesting we need any sort of particular forest management practices.

      “The “sweet spots” of California’s inhabitable areas that were once home to (I’m not sure) about 150000 Californian Indians are now home to about 40 million people. I don’t think this is the same ecosystem than what it once was.”

      I think the Native population at contact was generally considered to be closer to 250,000 to 300,000. When speaking of healthy ecosystems you must choose a starting point in time and that’s tricky. Are we considering 50 years ago? 500 years ago? Or 15,000? Are we considering ecosystems just before European contact or hundreds of years after? Systems following the mass extinction of megafauna after the Ice Age some 13,000 years ago which very well may have been anthropogenic in cause? Or the systems prior to that even? What’s a natural ecosystem?

      “All these factors combined make me believe that fire MAYBE was a factor in small areas, ”

      I’m not sure what you mean by a “factor,” but the evidence of Native American use of fire is overwhelming.

      • Thanks for the further explanation and clarification. I understand your thoughts and thinking.

        With “factor” I meant fire is just one that may have had an effect on certain plants – in the case of your lily (which is spectacular btw.) it had a very limited distribution to begin with, so we can’t say for sure whether it benefited from the fire treatment of not.

        In general though, all wildflowers benefit from fire – once the taller shrubs and bushes are gone, there is less competition for light, water, soil nutrients. This only means that the plants and ecosystem are adapted to fire – but not that they need it. Seed banks are perfectly fine to stay stored in the soil for (many) years, and the natural fire return frequency in the chaparral of Southern California is something between 50 and 150 years.

      • Jack Elliott says:

        I’m not sure what your point is. You’re repeating things I already wrote about and commenting on other things that don’t really relate.

        You initially commented:

        “Chaparral shrublands require 15-25 years at the very least to fully recover after catastrophic fires. We have many areas that burned far more often, leading to type conversion…”

        That was precisely the point of citing Anderson and Timbrook and Pyne. To note type conversion brought about fire. It’s unclear why you’re saying this.

        “With ‘factor’ I meant fire is just one”

        Yes, I know, that’s why I wrote: “one problem.” I said that from the get go.

        “In general though, all wildflowers benefit from fire “

        Yes, this was one reason why the Indians burned the land, to encourage the growth of wildflowers that served as important seed crops. This is why I mentioned Indian use of fire in this post. That was the point. It’s unclear why you’re repeating it or explaining it.

        “This only means that the plants and ecosystem are adapted to fire – but not that they need it”

        Nobody said they needed it. The point of the post was one of possible benefit not necessity.

        Your chain of comments seems to be directed at an issue I never raised, which is modern day management of chaparral ecosystems or something. You came in commenting about being skeptical of fire solutions when the post had nothing to do with that issue. Now you keep going on here with it:

        “ the natural fire return frequency in the chaparral of Southern California is something between 50 and 150 years.”

        Fire return frequency in chaparral doesn’t have anything to do with the point of the post. But as I noted a year ago here:

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

        But that’s just large, which would not account for Indian fires which were small scale and low intensity. Setting aside fires that got out of hand.

        And so as far as what is “natural” with respect to fire return frequency, I’m really interested in how you define that exactly.

        How are you able to discern Indian use of fire from natural fires during the last 10,000 years?

  5. Anonymous says:

    Excellent write up. I have observed several Post Clovis points in recently burned areas of the Los Padres that were formerly impenetrable chaparral.The argument that Native Americans didn’t use fire heavily on the landscape seems weak. If they didn’t use fire, it would indicate that they didn’t understand the relationships of early successional plant growth and ungulates, which is laughable considering their close relationship with the land.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      Thanks.

      “Early successional plant growth.”

      Exactly.

      Being that the biodiversity found in early successional forest growth after disturbance, in this case fire, was to Native people’s great advantage. Old growth forest and dead forest litter was of little value.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      “the relationships of early successional plant growth and ungulates,”

      I take it you’re a hunter.

      • OwenH says:

        Yes, though I consider my hunting secondary to just wandering around the hills. It is probably self serving of me to think that fire is best for the environment as a whole, but the evidence seems
        strong.

    • Jack Elliott says:

      “They burned in the hunting areas so there was more food for the deer.”

      –Bill Franklin Sierra Miwok elder cited in Anderson

  6. Jack Elliott says:

    Anderson lists the fritillary lilies (Fritillaria spp.) as being a traditional food source of aboriginal California. Timbrook offers no entry for fritillary lilies in “Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California.”

    Anderson notes that an “unusually high proportion” of California’s rare or endangered plants today are monocotyledonous geophytes, a category which includes the fritillary lilies, and which also includes numerous other plants that had once been widely eaten by Indians.

    After discussing how traditional Indian forest management and harvesting techniques had the potential to increase the population sizes and bloom rates of these plants in a sustained manner over the long term, Anderson writes:

    “Particularly important for some genera, such as true lilies (Lilium spp.) and the checker lilies (Fritillaria spp.), may be the disturbance and maintenance of open areas provided by digging and regular burning, of the type practiced by native people. Anecdotal evidence and my own observations suggest that such geophytes show remarkable rejuvenation after controlled burns, natural low-intensity fire, and clearing of underbrush.” (p. 304)

  7. Christopher Lord says:

    Great Stuff Jack as always

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