Plants Flourishing Under Fire

Carleton Arb staff and students use prescribed burns to manage McKnight Prairie.Carleton Arb staff and students use prescribed burns to manage McKnight Prairie. Photo: Hai Ngo ’12

For the past five decades, Carleton Arb staff members and students have used prescribed burns, a common practice across the Midwest, to manage McKnight Prairie. In 2019 two Carleton alumni completed a study in greater Minnesota that deepens our understanding of how and why such blazes are so beneficial to one of the region’s most prevalent prairie plant species. Stuart Wagenius ’91 and Jared Beck ’14 have shown that echinacea, a flowering plant used as an immunity-boosting herbal remedy, produces significantly more seeds after a fire—reinvigorating the landscape and leading to sundry environmental benefits, including increased pollination.

Researchers have long believed that plants experienced post-blaze bonanzas because controlled fires clear space for new growth. Wagenius and Beck’s study suggests that increased pollination also leads to increased genetic diversity and a reproductive advantage. Wagenius, who works as a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, tracked more than 800 individual echinacea plants for more than 20 years on a 100-acre preserve in Minnesota. Beck, who met Wagenius as a research assistant on the preserve and is now finishing a PhD in botany at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, came on board to help crunch the data. “It was exciting to realize that what we thought might be happening was absolutely happening,” Beck says. “In science, you often have a hunch, but it almost never works out. This time it did.”

The echinacea study, published in January 2020 by the National Academy of Sciences and picked up by the New York Times, adds to the growing body of science that supports prairie burns. And though the paper’s conclusions pertain specifically to echinacea, the authors say the findings may offer insights into the pollination of species. “We can’t say for certain, but this suggests that fire has similar benefits for other prairie-plant species,” Beck says.

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