An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter of May 29, 2005

issued from California's Sierra Nevada Foothills

MOUNTAIN MISERY FIRE

The other day I was burning some scrub that earlier had been cleared from around the house. After the brush pile was reduced to a heap of ashes I went around stomping everyplace that was still smoking, and then went to work elsewhere.

Mountain Misery, CHAMAEBATIA FOLIOLOSAAbout 15 minutes later Fred noticed some smoke and had me go look. The fire had restarted, moved through the grass and now was racing through a thicket of knee-high Mountain Misery, CHAMAEBATIA FOLIOLOSA, a wiry, ferny-leafed, woody-stemmed member of the Rose Family. That's it at the right.

Mountain Misery earns the miserable part of its name from the fact that it forms very dense, pure thickets with interlaced branches, and its leaves are so resiny that when you walk through them you end up with big wads of gummy leaves and stems on your feet. On a hot, sunny day the plants emit a not-unpleasant but somewhat medicinal odor maybe between that of creosote and sage. You might guess that the resin burns like crazy. In fact, that day my Mountain Misery was burning as if it had been doused with kerosene.

I'd kept a fire-hoe handy just in case something like that happened and soon had the fire under control. However, the entire Mountain Misery thicket had disappeared leaving nothing but black, smooth ground. No traces were left of its woody stems and the heat had been so intense that surely no seeds from the previous year had survived. I just stood and wondered why a plant would evolve in this fire- prone environment actually encouraging conflagrations with its abundant highly inflammable resins.

Now I know the answer to that question. For, now the Mountain Misery's underground roots are robustly resprouting emerald-green, ferny shoots, and no other species in the fire's vicinity is doing that. In short, Mountain Misery created a fire hotter than normal "knowing" that it itself would survive, even as other species would not. Thus, in the long run, it makes sense for Mountain Misery to encourage its own above-ground, total destruction by fire, because when the burnt area revegetates, Mountain Misery will have an advantage over other species. No wonder you find such large, pure areas of nothing but Mountain Misery.