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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: After the Slide Fire, a Rare Plant Grows Back

Can a plant that grows in only three national forests in Arizona survive all that today’s changing environment can throw at it? 

That’s a question botanists are asking as they monitor populations of the rare Arizona bugbane.

It was first collected on Bill Williams Mountain in 1883, and is protected there in a 618-acre special botanical area in the Kaibab National Forest. The only other places where this flower lives is on the Coconino and Tonto national forests, specifically where conifers meet streamside deciduous trees. That’s places like the West Fork of Oak Creek and a few other shady, moist canyons.

A relict from past cooler times, this perennial member of the buttercup clan can reach up to six feet tall. It bears stately wands of white flowers in July and August — attracting bumblebees, its main pollinators.

Bugbane is sensitive to trampling, flooding and fire. So the effects of the recent Slide Fire in Oak Creek Canyon are of great interest to the region’s botanists.

Barb Phillips, former Coconino National Forest botanist, started keeping track of bugbane in the 1980s and considers it a resilient plant. Debra Crisp, the present forest botanist, has been into the Slide Fire area and reported seeing some plants already resprouting.

Bugbane’s ability to spread by underground rhizomes helps it withstand the heat of fire. With the arrival of monsoon rains in the fire’s aftermath, it remains to be seen what toll flooding may take on streamside plants. But one thing is known—Arizona bugbane is a survivor.

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