This year I tried to get out there into the field when the camas is beginning to erupt from the ground. I am not sure I have seen the baby camas when it just erupts before, only when it is already in full leaf. It helps that I transplanted some camas, and seeded camas some years ago at my home so I can see on a daily basis the progress of camas in my area of the Willamette Valley. When I saw it erupt in my well-managed and weeded garden, I then knew I needed to get out into the less managed wild areas to see it erupting there.
My garden recently became a thing, after being a wild mess of bushes and blackberries for years. We decided some 3 years ago to weed out the blackberries and save the roses and a few other plants of value. The area had the low evergreen tams and a bush which we could not kill, and a couple old stumps of trees felled in previous windstorms. So we just could not keep up with the blackberries, and finally got frustrated with the recurring mess, because the bush and blackberries would not die, and hired a yard maintenance company to take everything down to ground in one day. They completed the job in about 3 hours, grinding the stumps to nothing, rooting out the bushes and taking everything down to dirt, in impressive fashion. Humans are so good at destroying things. But we replanted the area with some natives and saved the camas, and seeded more. In future years we will have a camas mecca in May of each year.
I began visiting the camas at Minto-Brown Island Park some 10 years ago and now return to study it’s growth cycle and watch phenomenon in the environment which may stress it out. Last year I noticed that the city of Salem mows the fields in about January each year. I assume they want to knock down the left-over dead woody debris of the previous seasonal prairies. Their mower is not a mulcher and so I found that the whole stems of the woody plants of the prairies are intact and laying prone on the ground. In some spots it is quite thick, much of it is thistle debris and seems to impede the growth of grasses. There are wide spaces where woody debris is lying thick. The camas grows up through the middle of many piles of debris and I wonder if the thick thatch layer slows down or really impedes camas at all. I would assume a delay at least. The baby camas plant is hardy enough to be able to push its way upward just fine.
Thinking about the history of how tribal peoples, principally the Kalapuyans in this valley, stewarded these lands before the 1850s, they would have burnt the prairies in early September and that woody thatch would then be partially atomized into a nutrient-rich powder and there would not be the thatch layers that we see today. The fires would also control and manage bushes, insects, pests, and other invasives to the prairies and leave the grasslands only grasses and bulb plants. The bulbs would easily survive underground from the annual fires. The bulbs, those of many plants, are highly sought-after foods and medicinals for tribes in the West. Over generations and millennia regular annual cultural fires would evolutionary “choose” which plants survive and thrive in the valley by stressing out those plants that are not well-suited for fire causing them to retreat to large wetlands, swamps, marshes, swales, and riverbanks, and other areas with some protection from fires.
Hence the Kalapuyans created the picturesque Willamette Valley of oak savanna and clear prairies of the settler stories and mythologized folklore of Oregon.
Section of Poem Thanatopsis by William Cullen Bryant
In purpose, we all understand that the city wants to mow to take down a potential fire risk. Fire has been a huge issue of recent history and now the city and all municipalities are knocking down fields and woody areas in increasing rapidity and frequency to partially eliminate the threat of wildfire. But wildfire is not only about the standing grasses and woody debris, but also the depth of the thatch layers. If the thatch layers are deep enough they will allow the fire to burn far longer and potentially be far more damaging to the plants and animals of the prairies. Fires that burn longer can burn into roots and remain a threat for weeks or months, while the heat of a long-lasting fire would be hotter and could potentially cook and destroy many roots, seeds and bulbs of prairies. So perhaps mowing and leaving the thatch to naturally degrade is not the best thing for eliminating fire risk.
Gathering up the thatch and burning it in bonfires may be better, if we need to continue mowing. We may then spread the charred remains across the land and thereby spread the nutrients about. Or perhaps its time for a serious conversation about how annual burning needs to return to the area. Minto-Brown Island Park is a series of fields and prairies, and they are hemmed in by damp woods and waterways. There are few or no houses in the park. Some power lines do exist but they are non-intrusive. I think the park is a prime candidate for annual burns in September or October in several fields. Cultural burning today is very well managed and there are experts and professionals working in the valley that know the area well and plan well for burning discrete areas. I think we could easily do this in the park. Besides, visitors may note that the park is overrun with invasive plants. This is not a natural landscape in any way. Blackberries are everywhere, and European teasels are also there in large patches. Annual burning would likely take down many of these invasives, discourage them, and allow native plants to return in greater rates. Then the thatch layers would begin to disappear as annual burns happen. Burns would not need to happen every year to be effective, every third year would be fine.