Plants have very different priorities from those who enjoy growing them. The colors and fragrances of flowers that we find so appealing are really designed to guide pollinators. The appealingly aromatic foliage of scented geranium and other herbs is actually designed to repel hungry insects and animals. Many tasty fruits are designed for seed dispersion by animals who enjoy them too.
Pollination, dispersion of seed and self defense are all part of what plants do in nature. They must also know how to survive in their respective natural environments. Many plants survive cold arctic weather. Others survive arid deserts. Many native plants want a bit of water through winter, but know how to survive through long dry summers. Many or most natives know how to survive wildfires.
As unpleasant as it seems to us, wildfires are very natural here. Native plants lack the mobility to get out of the way, so use other techniques to survive. A few, such as the two specie of redwood, survive by not being very flammable. More know how to resprout from their roots after they burn. Even more simply regrow from new seedlings. Then there those that use fire to their advantage.
Monterey pine trees tend to accumulate combustible debris. They also produce more seed-containing cones as they age and deteriorate. When they burn, all the debris burns so hotly that most of the other competing vegetation gets incinerated. However, the dense cones of Monterey pine protect the seed within, only to open to disperse the seed afterward. It is a rather ingenious plan!
Ungroomed desert fan palms burn at least as hotly, but survive because the hefty trunks protect the buds within. Each technique works for the specie that use it, but is not safe for home gardens! This is why combustible vegetation needs to be managed around the home. The rules are different in urban areas than they are where wildfires are a concern, but they are important everywhere. Even the most combustible of native plants, as well as exotics, can be reasonably safe with proper pruning and maintenance.
“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” That old margarine commercial was lame back in the 1970s, but the quote is so true. Inadvertent interference with the natural process of wildfires has unfortunately increased the combustibility of the flora of forests and wildlands throughout California. No one really meant to interfere with the process. It is just what happens when we need to protect our homes and properties from fire.
The longer the vegetation is deprived of fire, the more overgrown and combustible it becomes. If deprived of fire long enough, many plants start to succumb to insect infestation and disease, and they become more combustible as they deteriorate and die. To make matters worse, so many of the exotic (non-native) plants that have been introduced into California are just as combustible, and some are even more combustible than native flora!
Combustibility is certainly no accident on their part. It is part of their ecology. Very few woody plants that are native to California even try to survive fire. The two specie of redwoods protect themselves with thick noncombustible bark so that they can recover from fire, even if much of the foliage gets burned away. Desert fan palms also recover after fire, after fueling it with their very combustible old fronds in order to incinerate competing specie. They are experts on this sort of ecology!
Most plants specie are neither so determine to survive fire, nor so creative in exploiting it as the desert fan palm is. They just live and die with it, only to regenerate and start the process all over again. Many release their seed as they burn. Some pines protect their seed within thick cones that open to disperse seed afterward. Seed of some specie need to be scarified by heat to germinate only after fire. Everyone want to be the first to exploit new real estate freshly cleared by fire, and they are always working on techniques to give them an advantage.
The problem with these processes is that they are not compatible with our lifestyles. As several big wildfires continue to burn throughout Southern California, another fire started early this morning just east of the Sepulveda Pass of the San Diego Freeway in Bel Air.