Lightning Fires Spark Stands of Rare Cypress

Wildfires such as those set by The Great California Lightning Storm of 2008 benefit a rare species of western conifer, Sargeant Cypress ( cypressus sargentii ). The range of Sargeant Cypress tracks the 4,000-5,000 foot ridgeline of Central California’s Santa Lucia Mountains.

Sargeant Cypress colonizes the most exposed and highest elevation habitats of the Santa Lucias, because it derives its existence from a serpentine/lightning ecological association. Botanically, the species prefers the chemical makeup of serpentine soils. Climatically, the exposed ridges draw lightning strokes, which burn the cypress stands, enhancing their regeneration.

Bert Wilson, proprietor of Las Pilitas Nursery near San Luis Obispo and author of the nursery’s encyclopedic website on California native flora, explains that while fires in 100- year cycles nurture this cypress, prescribed or accidental burns prior to the close of the cycle result in the decline of the species. The erosion-controlling plants seeded for reclamation subsequent to fires further hamper ridgetop ecology by hugging the earth at ground-level and hindering pollination by honeybees, which require ground clearance for return flights to their hives.

According to Melody Fountain, District Resource Officer for the Santa Lucia Ranger District in Los Padres National Forest, the last 20 years have seen at least two wildfire incursions into Sargeant Cypress habitat — the Route 41 Fire near San Luis Obispo and the Marre Fire near Santa Barbara.

The Cuesta Ridge Trail near Santa Margarita, California leads to a notable undisturbed stand of Sargeant Cypress. Untouched by fire for 74 years, it has achieved mature status and offers a sense of ridgeline ecology. The trail affords stunning Pacific Ocean vistas as well.

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