Burning the Late Bloomers: How Fire Can Control Medusahead and Possibly Other Invasive Species

Medusahead is a late-season grass; it goes to seed after most of its neighbors have turned brown, making it vulnerable to late spring burning. Photo taken in Dye Creek Preserve burn unit

Medusahead is a late-season grass; it goes to seed after most of its neighbors have turned brown, making it vulnerable to late spring burning. [Photo taken in Dye Creek Preserve burn unit, May 22nd, 2017. All photos this article by Lenya Quinn-Davidson]

This guest article by Lenya Quinn-Davidson is from the Summer edition of Trees Foundation‘s Forest & River News used with permission from the Trees Foundation.

It was adapted from one of Lenya’s monthly “Science Tuesday” blog posts for the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (FAC Net). The mission of the FAC Net is to connect and support people and communities who are striving to live more safely with wildfire. The Network is a catalyst for spreading best practices and innovations in fire adaptation concepts nationwide. Learn more and sign up for the blog here.

The first thing I did on May 25th was smash my ring finger in the door of a truck. I got out to open a gate, and my finger decided to stay with the door as I slammed it shut with my other hand. I didn’t know it was possible for a door to latch with a full knuckle in its way, but indeed it is!

It was my third day in the field that week, monitoring invasive grasses as part of a small research project I’m working on with some colleagues at the University of California Cooperative Extension.

The first two days we were baking in 102 degree weather in California’s Central Valley, but by Thursday, we were back in the cool fog of Humboldt County, searching out plot locations and joking about which of us should pound the t-posts for our transects: me, with my freshly crushed ring finger, or my coworker Jeff, who had a dislocated thumb. Such an impressive field crew!

For this project, we are testing the effectiveness of prescribed fire for the control of medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae), an annual grass from the Mediterranean that is considered one of the worst invasives in western rangelands. Medusahead has earned that reputation thanks to a number of unlikable traits, including its ability to rapidly spread throughout an area, suppressing growth of desirable grasses and forbs, and its high silica content, which not only makes it highly unpalatable to livestock for most of the year, but also results in the development of a persistent, silica-rich thatch that further precludes growth of other plants. Unfortunately, medusahead is also quite versatile, enjoying not only intense heat and thin, rocky soils like those in The Nature Conservancy’s Dye Creek Preserve (where we started our field work in late May), but also the cool climate and relatively rich soils afforded by coastal Humboldt County. Like many non-native invasive plants, medusahead is easy to please and very hard to control.

Previous studies have tested various control options for medusahead, including grazing, herbicides, and fire. Grazing has the benefit of trampling, which can (at least temporarily) reduce cover of medusahead, but the grass is so distasteful that control via consumption is not a realistic option. In a grazed pasture, you can often tell where the medusahead is by looking for islands of untouched grass amid areas that have been fully grazed. In some of our field sites, we’ve actually seen trails of grass that have been bitten off and then spit out—immature medusahead that caught the cattle by surprise.

Cattle may attempt to eat medusahead, but they’ll often spit it out when they realize how unpalatable it is. Photo taken in Bridgeville burn unit, May 25th, 2017.

Cattle may attempt to eat medusahead, but they’ll often spit it out when they realize how unpalatable it is. [Photo taken in Bridgeville burn unit, May 25th, 2017.]

Herbicides have been shown to be effective, especially when used in conjunction with prescribed fire.One study showed that medusahead in a sagebrush-steppe ecosystem was best controlled with burning followed by application of imazapic, an herbicide that targets broad-leafed plants and some grasses (Davies 2010). This treatment not only controlled the medusahead, but it also resulted in greater establishment of perennial bunchgrasses.But fire alone also appears to be a promising approach; several studies have shown that it can greatly reduce medusahead cover, at least in the years immediately following the fire. A 1996 paper by Pollak and Kan showed that late spring burning on the Jepson Creek Preserve in central California successfully reduced the cover of medusahead and other non-native annual grasses, and increased the cover of native species and important range forbs, like filaree (Erodium species).Another paper from northern California showed that successful control of medusahead was related to the amount of non-medusahead biomass in the unit before the burn (Kyser et al. 2008). More productive sites provided more combustible fuels, allowing for increased fire intensity and better effects.Timing is also a very important consideration when using prescribed fire to control medusahead. It is a late-season grass, meaning that it flowers and goes to seed long after most of its neighbors have turned brown. In an unburned system, this gives medusahead an advantage—it can continue to grow and produce seed without competition from the early-season grasses that share its space. But there is also a window when it is vulnerable to fire and nothing else is; other plants have dropped their seeds, but medusahead seeds are still on the plant and surrounded by dry fuels. I think this late-season quality may be medusahead’s only likable trait!
In this photo, you can see the areas where cattle have grazed (green patches) and the islands of medusahead that have been left behind. Photo taken in Bridgeville burn unit, June 5th, 2017.

In this photo, you can see the areas where cattle have grazed (green patches) and the islands of medusahead that have been left behind. [Photo taken in Bridgeville burn unit, June 5th, 2017.]

Beyond timing, the size and shape of the burn can have a strong influence on the success of the treatment, as can the species composition of the area. A recent study by Sasha Berleman and her colleagues (Berleman et al. 2016) showed that smaller treatment areas may be more vulnerable to seed dispersal from nearby patches of medusahead. Likewise, treatments are most effective in places where other grass species can survive the fire, reestablish quickly, and outcompete the medusahead.In their study, Berleman et al. showed that the fecundity of wild oats (Avena spp.) significantly increased after fire, giving it an immediate advantage over medusahead, which did not share the same response (Berelman et al. 2016).These studies are exciting not only because they help us understand how to manage medusahead, which is fairly common throughout our region, but also because their results might translate to other late-season invasives that we all despise, like star thistle. I think these studies are also important because they remind us of the nuance involved in using fire—we have to take the time to understand the physiology of the individual plants we’re managing, and to remember that fire can be a powerful tool for shaping the composition and structure of our plant communities.(In this case, I also had a solid reminder of how important it is to move my hand before slamming a heavy truck door—learning opportunities abound!)

Berleman, S. A., Suding, K. N., Fry, D. L., Bartolome, J. W., & Stephens, S. L. (2016). Prescribed Fire Effects on Population Dynamics of an Annual Grassland. Rangeland Ecology & Management, 69(6), 423-429.
Davies, K. W. (2010). Revegetation of medusahead-invaded sagebrush steppe. Rangeland Ecology & Management, 63(5), 564-571.
Kyser, G. B., Doran, M. P., McDougald, N. K., Orloff, S. B., Vargas, R. N., Wilson, R. G., & DiTomaso, J. M. (2008). Site characteristics determine the success of prescribed burning for medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae) control. Invasive plant science and management, 1(4), 376-384.
Pollak, O., & Kan, T. (1998). The use of prescribed fire to control invasive exotic weeds at Jepson Prairie Preserve. In Ecology, conservation, and management of vernal pool ecosystems. Proceedings of 1996 conference. California Native Plant Society, Sacramento, California, USA (pp. 241-249).

Trees Foundation Board Member Lenya Quinn-Davidson is the Area Fire Advisor for University of California Cooperative Extension in Eureka and the Director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. She works on a wide range of issues, including research, outreach, and policy related to prescribed fire and fire management more generally. Feel free to contact her at lquinndavidson@ucanr.edu.




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