The contribution of resprouts and seedling recruitment to post-fire regeneration of the South African fynbos conifer Widdringtonia nodiflora was compared eight months after wildfires in 1990. Stems on all trees were killed by fire but resprouting success was > 90 % at all but one site. A demographic study of burned skeletons revealed that prior to these fires, nearly all plants were multi-stemmed (4 - 9 stems/plant) and multi-aged, indicating continuous sprout production between fires. All stems were killed by these 1990 fires and at most sites > 90 % of the stems were burned to ground level. All diameter stems were susceptible to such incineration as, at most sites, there was no difference in average diameter of stems burned to ground level and those left standing. Individual genets usually had all ramets incinerated to ground level or all ramets charred, but intact, suggesting certain micro-sites burned hotter, whereas other sites were somewhat protected. Although not true of the 1990 fires, there was evidence that occasionally Widdringtonia stems may survive fire. At one site, four of the 16 plants sampled had a burned stem twice as old as the oldest burned stem on the other 12 plants at the site, suggesting some stems had survived the previous fire (ca. 1970) and this conclusion was supported by fire-scars on these four stems that dated to ca. 1970. Based on the highly significant correlation between stem diameter and cone density left standing after the 1990 fries, we calculated that for most sites > 80 % of the initial cone crop was incinerated by fire. This is important because we observed a strong relationship between size of the canopy cone crop surviving fire and post-fire seedling recruitment. Under these conditions we hypothesize that sprouting confers a selective advantage to genets when fires cause heavy losses of seed. The infrequent occurrence of sprouting in the Cupressaceae suggests the hypothesis that resprouting is an apomorphic or derived trait in Widdringtonia. Data from this study suggests resprouting provides a selective advantage under severe fynbos fires, which are not only 'stand-replacing fires,' but also are intense enough to incinerate cone-bearing stems.
Additional publication details
Stem demography and post-fire recruitment of a resprouting serotinous conifer