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The once and future Piedmont savanna

PHOTO BY JOHNNY RANDALL. A carefully managed prescribed burn at Mason Farm Biological Reserve will usher in the resurrection of our Piedmont savanna vegetation.

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

The 40-plus walkers accompanying me “in the footsteps of John Terres” around Mason Farm on Sunday saw something there that John never saw. Some of the fields and forests had been recently scarred by fire. I’ve invited my good friend Johnny Randall, assistant director for Natural Areas and Conservation Programs at the N.C. Botanical Garden, to tell the story in this week’s Flora:

“Like the mythological phoenix, many of our natural communities are periodically reborn through fire. If you perchance saw a plume of smoke rising from Mason Farm Biological Reserve last week, you witnessed evidence of an event that will usher in the resurrection of our Piedmont savanna vegetation. From the newly scorched landscape will emerge sun-loving grasses and wildflowers that create the habitat preferred by ground-nesting birds, turkeys and many other critters.

“You’ll recognize the names of these fire-responsive plants: blazing star (Liatris), wild blue indigo (Baptisia), sunflowers (Helianthus) and coneflowers (Echinacea). Native grasses such as Indiangrass (Sorghastrum), little bluestem (Schizachyrium) and big bluestem (Andropogon) also comprise this savanna matrix. Mown roadsides and other rights-of-way clearances have provided a refugium for these plants, while the former Piedmont vegetation succumbed to the shade of dense forests.

“Fire suppression, from early colonists to present day, represents one of the most pervasive threats to biodiversity conservation nationwide. Times are changing; the week of Feb. 7 was declared N.C. Prescribed Fire Awareness Week by Gov. Beverly Perdue!

“European explorers and American botanists of the 18th century described the Carolina Piedmont as having vast savannas, prairies and plains of ‘many spacious tracts of meadow-land … burdened with grass six feet high … with buffaloes ranging in droves feeding upon the open savannas morning and night.’

“Like the Native Americans before us, we at the N.C. Botanical Garden have taken up the torch. John Lawson, in his 1709 book, A New Voyage to Carolina, reports: ‘In February and March the inhabitants have a custom of burning the woods … an annual custom of the Indians in their huntings, of setting the woods on fire many miles in extent.’ Fires used by indigenous peoples rejuvenated hunting grounds, facilitated travel, and for at least 1,500 years, opened areas to sunlight for agriculture. I also believe that Native Americans knew, as we have learned, that regularly burned meadows and woodlands contain many fewer ticks!

“We also use prescribed fire to reduce wildfire hazards from lightning strikes or arson. In order to execute prescribed fire safely, the Botanical Garden has a N.C. Division of Forest Resources certified in-house burning crew and follows a very strict ‘prescription’ based on weather conditions and other parameters. Our closest neighbors in the Kings Mill/Morgan Creek neighborhood have been accustomed to the smell of smoke from the 30 years of annual burns in our sandhills and coastal plain habitat gardens next to the Totten Center.

“Visit Mason Farm frequently this spring to observe and celebrate with us the Phoenix-like savanna rebirth at Mason Farm and take a closer look at the sequence of vegetation and floral display that begins emerging almost immediately.”

Many thanks to Johnny Randall for contributing this week’s Flora story and thanks to his dedicated garden colleagues and volunteers who help manage Mason Farm so wisely!

Email Ken Moore at flora@carrborocitizen.com.
Read more Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

PHOTO BY JOHNNY RANDALL. Mason Farm forests and fields burned two weeks ago are already turning green with vigorous spring growth.

PHOTO BY JOHNNY RANDALL. Professionally trained Botanical Garden fire crew, (left to right) Johnny Randall, Charlie Tomerlin, Monica Foley, Amanda Mixon, Andy Walker, Sally Heiney, Mike Kunz, Matt Gocke, JC Poythress and Irene Sadler, are happy with the success of their Mason Farm prescribed burn.

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