This month I have been rather depressed about the wildfires sweeping New Mexico. Despite the beautiful sunsets caused by the sun glowing through the thick haze and smoke, wildfires are a natural phenomenon that result in destruction and loss in the immediate event and aftermath.
The first wildfire this summer began in the Pecos Wilderness near Tres Lagunas on May 31, caused by a downed power line. One of the most beautiful camping areas in the Santa Fe National Forest, the Holy Ghost Canyon, was caught up in the blaze. Firefighters were able to save the campground and structures in the canyon.
The Holy Ghost ipomopsis, Ipomopsis sancti-spiritus, is a biennial/short-lived perennial member of the phlox family with hot pink flowers found in only one location in the world: the gravelly embankment of the road leading to the Holy Ghost Canyon campground. Less than 2000 individual plants remain. The ipomopsis thrives best in full to partial sunlight, and has been negatively affected by the successful reforestation and fire prevention work in the canyon. Grazing by deer and rabbit have also reduced the population. The plant’s survival is further challenged by the fact that only about 10% of individual flowers set fruit and of those few seeds, even fewer sprout.
It is estimated that the species’ decline will lead to extinction in the next 50 years. Current research has focussed on improving the rate of germination and growth of new plants.
Will this year’s forest fires kill off the remaining population of the Holy Ghost ipomopsis? Or will the increased sunshine caused by the destruction of the forest canopy provide an improved habitat? Perhaps wildfires play a positive role in the life cycle of the endangered blossom.
Right now, researchers will need to wait until the smoldering forest floor cools enough to allow them to return to the canyon to assess the damage and impact of the fire on the endangered wildflower and the rest of the plant and animal life of the Santa Fe National Forest ecosystem.