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Fire ecology
Fire ecology

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2.4 Fire-stimulated seed germination from seed banks

Many plants shed seeds as normal but these do not germinate immediately. They are incorporated into the litter and humus to form a soil seed bank. Some seeds remain in the soil only during the inhospitable time of the year but others can be stored for a few years or even decades. Storage of seeds in the soil is a useful strategy in areas where the interval between fires is longer than the lifespan of the plant. Fire stimulates seeds in seed banks to germinate, the trigger being direct stimulation by heat. This is most common in plants with seeds that have thick, hard seed coats that prevent germination by keeping oxygen and water away from the seed inside (Figure 12). The heat from the fire results in rapid expansion of the seed coat causing it to crack, allowing water and oxygen in and triggering germination.

A photo of the seeds of the black wattle. The seeds are oval in shape and about 6 mm long and 3 mm wide. They are black/dark brown.
Figure 12  Seeds of the black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) from Australia. The seeds form seed banks in the soil and germinate rapidly after fire.

Often seeds of the same species show variation in the amount of heat they need to trigger germination. This ensures that some seeds (with a low heat threshold) will germinate between fires but if these fail to mature, there is still a seed bank available. The chemical products of fire are also implicated in triggering germination, the most common being smoke. In almost 50% of 301 South African Fynbos species (Figure 13) tested, seed germination was improved after exposure to smoke (Brown et al., 2003).

A photo showing the kind of habitat that is typical of mountain Fynbos in the Cape Peninsula in South Africa. There are a number of different species in the foreground and mountains in the background.
Figure 13  Mountain Fynbos of the Cape Peninsula in South Africa. Many of the species typical of the Fynbos have seeds that are triggered to germinate by smoke.