by Laura Lovett
Lupinus albifrons

Lupinus albifrons – silver bush lupine

Californians are coming to the realization that while wildfires may threaten many of our neighborhoods, fire also plays a role in our ecosystem. Along with hardening our structures, we must assess our landscaping with the goal of reducing fuels. A yard filled with plants native to the area can form the basis for a fire smart landscape, as well as provide ecosystem benefits and require less irrigation. As the first step in helping homeowners make their gardens safer in the event of fire, the Marin Chapter has developed a Plant Replacement List for homeowners who are removing fire-prone plants.

There has always been fire; it is an essential component of our environment. Wildland fire provides numerous environmental benefits. Over millennia, many plants have become adapted to fire and may depend upon the effects of fire for growth and reproduction. With wildfire management focusing on large scale suppression, however, many fire-dependent ecosystems have not been allowed to undergo the natural cyclical processes that revitalize these plant communities.

Understanding the difference between a wildfire that promotes ecological health and one that threatens human communities is essential. Given that we deeply value our natural areas, it is important that they remain that way. That means that we need to learn to live with wildfire by becoming fire-adapted, just as our native plants have. Wildfires can and will occur again, but in a fire-adapted community they don’t have to be catastrophic.

Your home’s resistance to fire, particularly to flying embers, can be improved by hardening your structures. Extensive information on how to do this is available from FIRESafe Marin. The landscaping around your home also needs attention. With careful planning, you can have an aesthetically pleasing and fire-smart yard. Reduction of plant fuels is a key component, but defensible space doesn’t require the removal of all vegetation to be effective. We will not be able to completely eliminate fire, but we can take steps that will alter the behavior of fire in ways that reduce flame length and fire intensity.

Since 2019, the Marin Chapter of CNPS has been in an ongoing dialogue with the Marin County Fire Department and the new Marin Wildfire Protection Agency about ways we can have habitat gardens while also addressing community needs for fire safety. We believe that native plants have an important role to play in fire-smart landscaping because they are a natural and historical part of this ecosystem. The inclusion of natives in our home gardens provides for the rest of the ecosystem, not solely for human needs.

In our eagerness to import all sorts of new species from around the globe for both agricultural and ornamental use, humans have deliberately or accidentally introduced a number of plants that not only thrive but grow excessively well here. Most of these invasive plants are also fire-prone, damaging our landscapes twice over. Plants that belong here help us create an environment in balance, something imported plants cannot. A habitat in balance will be cooler and wetter and have fewer out-of-control fires, but it will still have fire.

Climate scientists predict that we will have hotter and drier weather in coming decades, with less rainfall and more drought years. A landscape of California native plants requires significantly less water in order to thrive. In fact, many plants, once established, do just fine on winter rains. Even plants from other Mediterranean climates require more water to stay healthy than our native flora. Keeping plants hydrated is important for fire resistance. An unhealthy, struggling plant is a fire-prone plant.

Native plants are the base of the food chain. Over millennia, our native pollinators and other creatures have become specifically adapted to our native plants for their food, shelter, and reproductive needs. They cannot make use of imported plants; without natives they starve. Our native trees are particularly important, often supporting hundreds of small mammals, birds, and invertebrates.

For all these reasons, using native plants for your landscaping is the smart thing to do. However, this doesn’t mean that you can plant it and forget it—all plants require maintenance! Look for future articles about native plant maintenance.

As a first step in providing information to the community through our work with the fire agencies, we have identified garden-friendly native plants for seven categories of form and use: large trees, small trees, hedging shrubs, medium-height shrubs, ground covers, large grasses, and vines. While there are hundreds of amazing native plants, we have selected ones that are particularly tolerant of garden conditions and that can be obtained through local nurseries. Keep in mind that native plants tend to be available for planting when they are most likely to thrive. This means that plants are healthier when they come to you, but some species may be available only during certain months of the year. Plan ahead! The nurseries will do their best to get you what you need, but they may need advance notice. We will also be featuring many of these plants at the Marin Chapter early spring plant sale, scheduled for March 17–24. We expect to have many more shrubs than usual, including many on the fire-smart Plant Replacement List.

If you are facing the deadlines imposed in Mill Valley for removal of specific plants or if the fire inspectors have notified you to remove a plant that is fire-prone, check the recommendations for fire-smart species on our Plant Replacement List accessed from the “In the Garden” tab under “Fire Smart Landscaping” on our website https://cnpsmarin.org/. The rainy season is the perfect time to start thinking about which parts of your garden need to be addressed for fire safety and what would be on your wish list to create a glorious garden that is not fire-prone.