The Plants of Water and Fire

Adirondacks lake-edge

All land returns to forest eventually. That is the reality of our temperate climate, our ample rainfall, our good soils. Much of our native flora, then, evolved in conditions dominated by trees. That is, the original flora of New Jersey is primarily comprised either of trees, or of shrubs and herbs and grasses and ferns that have learned to live alongside and primarily underneath trees. The shade-casters and the shade-tolerants, for example:

Niches small in scale our filled by our woodland herbs, the vernal wildflowers that find a toehold between the roots of a massive oak or maple, concentrating their water and sunlight use in early spring before the trees leaf out and take most of both.

Or our shade-adapted shrubs, with broad, largely horizontal leaves catching brief bursts of sun like sails catching errant winds. Spicebush, maple-leaf viburnum, wild hydrangea, witch hazel-- consider all these well adapted for life in the dapple shadows of the forest giants.

What about plants of meadow and full sun? These days, most numerous among these are the European invaders, the simples and weeds and forages and dooryard plants of yore, released into the abundance of a new continent. It is mainly these which can move into the disturbed soils left by dozer, plow and road crew.

Wherefore, then, our native plants of full sun? These are the plants of water and fire.

These are the plants that found places where tree-shade was lessened through elemental forces. The water plants lived along the edges of wide river courses, in silting-in beaver ponds, in bogs and fens and broad marshes where the reach of trees was lessened and their shade diminished.

Even today, our wet meadows are richer than our dry, as they are a refuge for the water plants: joe pye weed and swamp milkweed, spikerushes and bulrushes and woolgrass, gentians and lobelias.

Our fire plants intrigue no less, though they have found even fewer havens than our water plants. New Jersey tea, butterfly milkweed, lupine, woodland sunflower, pale corydalis, horse gentian-- these are vanishing races which depended on fire to open the sky for their growth. Some depend on fire for seed germination, having evolved seeds with impermeable coats that dwell in the soil until fire guarantees them an opening. Others are more flexible germinators, but can't compete against their shade tolerant neighbors once thicket gives way to young woods.

Corydalis sempervirens, Warren Co., NJ

When found at all, these plants are restricted mainly to bluffs and ridgetop glades, though some thrive in maintained power-line cuts especially in mountainous areas. Or, they persist in the Pine Barrens, that great expanse of sand and bog and flame-spawned conifers.

Many of our water and fire plants found their greatest expression on the midwestern prairie, that great expanse of open land maintained in equal measure by buffalo, wetness, and flame. Yet here, too, we once had rich and abundant surfacing groundwater, fire both wild and set by people, and buffalo, too.

It was in these openings that the plants of water and fire once dwelled.

Castilleja coccinea, a plant of both fire and water