One Million Purple Plants

ArraySeptember 7, 2023 at 6:18 pm

Late summer pours a tide of purple flowers across the sandplain grassland of Kennebunk Plains Wildlife Management Area. It’s the world’s largest population of the rare northern blazing star. This sea of flourishing blossoms is a symbol of resiliency and rejuvenation, a captivating display of new life breathed into the landscape by fire. Without fire, this unique ecosystem would cease to exist.

Thousands of purple blooming northern blazing star plants in a grassland.
Northern blazing star in bloom at Kennebunk Plains Wildlife Management Area

Sandplain grasslands are rare early successional ecosystems which require recurrent, low-intensity disturbance, such as fire, to subsist. Without it they would rapidly transition into oak-pine forests, and no longer support specialized grassland wildlife. At Kennebunk Plains Wildlife Management Area, we manage a mosaic of habitats including sandplain grasslands, pitch pine-heath barrens, pitch pine-scrub oak barrens, and red maple alluvial swamp forest. Grasshopper sparrows, upland sandpipers, Edward’s hairstreak butterflies, and northern black racer snakes are just a few examples of Endangered and Threatened species in Maine that depend on large unfragmented tracts of these carefully managed habitats.

A macro view of an orange white and green butterfly and a photo of an upland sandpiper blending into tall grasses.
Edward's hairstreak by M.C. Thomas, Upland sandpiper by Gail Smith

Fire knocks down invasive plants, controls growth of woody plants, creates space for seed germination, and returns nutrients to sandy soil to promote regrowth and restore ecosystem function. Northern blazing star is just one example of a plant that is well-adapted to dry, sandy soils, is tolerant of fire, and thrives in the conditions created by periodic burns.

A close view of the purple flowers on a northern blazing star plant, and a photo of plants with purple flowers mixed among tall grass.
Northern blazing star in bloom

In the absence of natural fires, meticulously planned prescribed burns are used to maintain grassland habitat. Prescribed burns also keep surrounding communities safe by eliminating overgrowth of fuels to reduce risk of uncontrollable wildfires. Kennebunk Plains Wildlife Management Area holds a 775-acre sandplain grassland, the largest in the state. It’s managed jointly with the Nature Conservancy, a leader in the use of fire as a management tool. To learn more about how prescribed burns are planned and executed, take a look at our blog post from last year’s burn.

Several people in protective yellow clothing and hard hats working a prescribed burn in a grassland.
A prescribed burn conducted at Kennebunk Plains Wildlife Management Area in 2022

The Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is divided into multiple burn units, defined areas where prescribed burns are implemented on a rotating basis. Areas burned more recently have a significantly different composition of vegetation than areas that were burned in years prior.

An aerial view of land that was burned several years ago compared with an aerial view of land burned last year. The first has thicker vegetation with more woody plants, and the second is blanketed with purple flowers.
A unit that was burned several years ago (left) and a unit that was burned last year (right)
Aerial views of Kennebunk Plains Wildlife Management Area showing the distinct unit of of purple blooms following a burn.
An aerial view shows just how easy it is to distinguish between units burned at different times.

Take a look at the photos below to see how the landscape changes over time, and just how quickly the grasslands would be replaced by forest without periodic fire.

Black soil immediately following a prescribed burn
The conclusion of a burn at Kennebunk Plains WMA
Purple flowers as far as the eye can see across a grassland.
One year after a prescribed burn
Two photos showing the regrowth of shrubby vegetation across a grassland two to three years after a prescribed burn.
Two to three years of regrowth since the last burn
Thick shrubs and trees taking over a grassland after many years without fire.
More than five years since the last burn

If you are interested in learning more about fire-adapted wildlife, prescribed burns, or the how fire shapes habitat, you’re in luck! We’ve partnered with North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange to integrate the North Atlantic Fire Learning Trail on some of our WMAs, including Kennebunk Plains! Come explore and see benefits of fire first-hand.

A sign designating the North Atlantic Fire Learning Trail along a sandy path through purple flowering grassland plants.
North Atlantic Fire Learning Trail at Kennebunk Plains WMA

Learn more:

Visiting Maine Wildlife Management Areas

Northern Blazing Star

Beginning with Habitat

Land Management in Maine