A burning computer-generated prairie.

Wildfires Stimulate Flower Power in Prairie Plants

A new study found that wildfires increased flower and seed production in two prairie plant species, but not a related species, highlighting how plant responses to fire can vary and impact the broader plant community.

Wildfires are often destructive, but some plants have adapted to benefit from the flames. A recent study by Lea Richardson and colleagues, published in the American Journal of Botany, found that fires significantly increased flower and seed production in two types of prairie plants, Narrow-leaved Purple Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) and Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera). However, a related flower, the Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa), showed no improvement from fires.

The research provides new insights into how wildfires influence plant reproduction. Fires can clear debris, release nutrients, and synchronise the flowering of different plants. All of these effects can improve pollination by increasing the availability of resources for plants and the opportunities for cross-pollination between them. However, not all plants respond the same way to fires, which can impact the overall plant community.

A purple coneflower, its petals pushed back so that they look like a skirt around the waist of a 'cone' that bears the reproductive
Echinacea angustifolia. Image: Canva.

To explore how fire influences prairie plants, researchers monitored purple coneflower, blazing star, and goldenrod at a preserve over multiple years, some with controlled burns and some without. They counted the number of flowering stems, flowers, fruits, and seeds for each plant after fires and tracked how well the different species produced seeds, a measure of reproductive fitness.

Plants that experienced fires produced more flowers and seeds in the purple coneflower and blazing star but not the goldenrod. A question was whether it was improved resources or improved pollination opportunities that increased reproductive fitness. Richardson and colleagues say it is probably both.

Spikes of Rough Blazing Star standing to attention. Flowers of light purple open at the top of the spike and work their way down, so that they appear to be wearing a hairstyle not seen since 1980s synth bands. If Kajagoogoo were reincarnated as North American wildflowers, this is how they'd look.
Liatris aspera. Image: Canva.

The botanists point to the increased number of flower heads and fruits as evidence of a resource boost for the coneflowers and blazing stars. However, Richardson and colleagues caution against identifying the actual fire as the source of this resource boost with total certainty. They write:

Despite the relationship we detected whereby head counts in E. angustifolia and L. aspera increased with fire, we can’t be sure that a post-fire boost in resources is responsible. A non-resource trigger may induce plants to invest more stored resources in flowering than they would in a year without the fire cue. For example, aspects of fire that may cue flowering could include exposure to smoke or heat.

Richardson et al. 2023

Another way the plants benefitted was through improved pollination. All the extra flower heads meant plants had more potential mates to send their pollen to. The fire also effectively synchronised the plants to flower around the same time, improving the chances for cross-fertilisation.

A flower spike with many small golden flowers on it. The golden top the spike sits on a long green stem, so that, en masse, the golden flowers look like they're floating in a sea of green. You don't really get that effect from the single spike shown here.
Solidago speciosa. Image: Dseiver / Wikimedia Commons.

In contrast, fires did not affect the goldenrod, implying that the species has not adapted to take advantage of the post-fire environment. The results suggest that while many plants flower more after fires, the reproduction benefits depend on both the availability of resources and synchronised flowering with other plants nearby. The inconsistent responses between closely related species could significantly impact the local ecosystem.

The findings reveal the complex effects of wildfires on plants and the surrounding community. Although fires are disruptive, for some species, they can be vital in stimulating flower power and seed production. A better understanding of how different plants respond to fires could inform conservation and ecosystem management.


Richardson, L.K., Beck, J., Eck, D.J., Shaw, R. and Wagenius, S. (2023) β€œFire effects on plant reproductive fitness vary among individuals reflecting pollination-dependent mechanisms,” American Journal of Botany. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/ajb2.16160.

Dale Maylea

Dale Maylea was a system for adding value to press releases. Then he was a manual algorithm for blogging any papers that Alun Salt thinks are interesting. Now he's an AI-assisted pen name. The idea being telling people about an interesting paper NOW beats telling people about an interesting paper at some time in the future, when there's time to sit down and take things slowly. We use the pen name to keep track of what is being written and how. You can read more about our relationship with AI.

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