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In Focus: FIRE, FAN PALMS & MAN KIRK ANDERSON


GARDENS COLLECTION MANAGER


FIRE! No other word in the English language grabs the attention like this one. It elicits a dichotomy of visceral reactions tracing back to man’s earliest beginnings. Fire is comfort with its ability to keep us warm, cook our food and hold the threats of darkness at bay, while at the same time it is terror when experienced unleashed across the landscape with its hunger to consume everything in its path. T rough slash and burn agriculture, driving game animals, scorched earth warfare and controlled burns, man has used fi re as a means to his ends. Even in the unlikely setting of the parched, sparsely vegetated desert of southeastern California, man was able to learn from a naturally occurring phenomenon and use fi re as a management tool to his advantage.


Here in the recesses of canyons and washes and along the fracture zones of fault lines, where water can be found at or near the surface, the California fan palm (Washingtonia fi lifera) makes its home. In one of the world’s hottest and driest environments the presence of water is, in essence, a proclamation of life. T e Native Americans living here learned how to maximize all that could be reaped from this arid land. T e palm oases were vital to their success and well-being. T ey were a source of water and food derived not only from the plants found growing there, but also from the game animals inexorably drawn to the promise of water and refuge. T e oasis itself provided relief from the relentless desert sun in its deep, deep shade as well as the raw materials for the construction of shelter. Palm fronds were used for thatching roofs and could be counted on to provide a watertight cover for several years. T e fi brous leaves were also used for making footwear, while an assortment of tools and utensils were fashioned from the leaf stem or petiole. T e black, pea-sized fruits of the California fan palm are comprised mostly of seed but are covered with a thin sweet-tasting fl esh. T e potentially bountiful harvest of several hundred pounds of fruit per tree could be eaten fresh or dried and stored for grinding, seed and all, into a meal or mush.


10 www.LivingDesert.org


California fan palm fruit production can be sporadic from year to year and the Native Americans must have observed that the palms bore more fruit following accidental or lightning sparked fi res. California’s only native palm tree is not only fi re resistant but seems to actually thrive under a fi re regime. Upon realizing this, the Native Americans then began to periodically burn the palm groves to improve fruit yield and tree health.


Fire benefi ts the palms by removing or drastically reducing other heavy water-using plants or phreatophytes that rely on a permanent supply of ground water like cottonwood (Populus fremontii), willows (Salix spp.), sycamore (Platanus racemosa), tamarisk (Tamarix spp.) and mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa var. torreyana). Palms are in a group of plants called monocots that


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