In May 2009, the Garden was engulfed by the Jesusita Fire which roared down Mission Canyon and burned large swaths of the grounds. Thankfully, due to the concerted efforts of fire crews, the core areas of the Garden including the Meadow, Redwood and Manzanita Sections, and most of the buildings were saved.
The fire burned right to the canyon rim, destroying the Campbell Trail display and scorching the Desert Section and the oaks along the edge of the Meadow.
The iconic pair of California fan palms in the Desert Section were scorched to such an extent that we feared they were dead. What a joyful sight it was to witness the new green leaves shooting out of the blackened trunks!
Palm Trees One Week After the Fire
Palm Trees One Year After the Fire
Along the Campbell Trail, and throughout the Canyon Section, tens of thousands of canyon sunflower seedlings germinated shortly after the fire providing an incredible display of dense green vegetation with brilliant yellow flowers. Although always present in small numbers in the oak woodland understory, this plant is a typical fire-follower and takes advantage of the habitat opened up by the fire.
Campbell Trail post fire
Campbell Trail two years after the fire
Much of the Porter Trail on the east side of Mission Canyon Road was reduced to ashes. We suffered our greatest losses to the living collections in the Ceanothus and Cypress collections here. Many native species do not have the ability to resprout and are killed outright if burned. This, unfortunately, happened to most of the Ceanothus, pine, cypress and junipers on the east side. These plants, however, exhibit a different strategy for coping with fire: they have fire-resistant seeds that only germinate after being burned. Their seeds can lie dormant in the soil for years and sprout in great numbers when exposed to the heat and ash brought by fire. Hundreds of seedlings of the naturally-occurring green-bark and bigpod Ceanothus sprouted after the fire. More surprising to us was the large number of flannel-bush seedlings that popped up everywhere - even in spots where they had not been planted for years.
Porter Trail post fire
Porter Trail one year after the fire
Just as native plants respond with vigor to a fire’s destructive power, so the Garden itself is presented with opportunities for renewal. Important views to the islands from the Porter Trail and elsewhere have been restored, and shade cover reduced, where the fire burned mature trees. We now have the opportunity to develop a canopy and view shed plan to preserve these important elements of the Garden for future generations. We also expect that the fire’s heat cleansed the soil of pathogens that inhibited the growth of Ceanothus (especially on the Porter Trail). There is much to do in the years to come, and much to look forward to.
The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden fosters the conservation of California's native plants through
our gardens, research and education, and serves as a role model of sustainable practices.