Fire Followers

209 total words    

1 minutes of reading

Five months after the fire
visitors to burned hillsides talked about
a plant they’d never seen before—
the Whispering Bells.

Emmenanthe penduliflora
the lone species in its genus
requires the heat of wildfire
to rise from seeds hidden for years.

California’s chaparral country—
canyons stacked with fuel—
only noticed by outsiders when the winds
throw flame across the ridges.

After the rainfall of the winter months
charred branches point toward endings—
the shattered soil holds a different story—
new stem and leaf, then inflorescence.

The Jepson taxon page, precise and dry,
calls the calyx lobes “bell-shaped, glandular,
yellow or white, hairy, persistent in age,
withering, papery, enclosing fruit.”

No mention of how the bells whisper
until I turn to the Calscape page—
“a rustling sound when a breeze comes through”
describing those persistent, aging lobes

hanging along the tough, sticky stems
each fruit waiting to become a seed
patiently standing through the dry season
dropping back to earth among sisters

dreaming for years about the next fire
each Emmenanthe seed, flat, wide-elliptic,
brown, surface honeycombed,
holding the memory of the landscape.

Those fresh yellow bells of May are not
the ones that whisper. I will return
to hear for myself their rustling sound
in the season we call September.

  • Catherine Montague

    Catherine Montague is a writer, lecturer, and educator who divides her time between Sebastopol and Berkeley. She is a member of the Education and Outreach committee for the Milo Baker Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.
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