At first glance, planting trees to prevent forest fires sounds a bit backwards. However, scientists are subverting expectations with their discovery of a fire-resistant tree.
The tree in question is the Mediterranean Cypress, and its properties were explored in the Journal of Environmental Management.
The discovery was made after a tragedy. A plot of land in Spain originally dedicated to researching a deadly tree pathogen burned to the ground in 2012. The researchers were devastated but then, astonishingly, among the ash was a promising patch of green. Where the common oaks, pines, junipers and holm oaks had perished, the Mediterranean cypresses endured.
In fact, only 1.27% of the cypress trees caught fire. You can see the remarkable glimmer of green in this photo of the aftermath of the fire.
THE MEDITERRANEAN CYPRESS WERE RESISTANTS TO DEVASTATION OF WILDFIRE IN THE SPAIN PROVINCE VALENCIA IN 2012. pic.twitter.com/vWgIO9Pste
— OSCAR FREDY POSSO VI (@osfpovi) September 2, 2015
The team knew that this was unlikely to be a fluke, so they started to study exactly what gives cypress trees their flame-resistant properties. It turns out that it's all to do with the tree's intelligent water-retention system.
The leaves have a high water content, which they can maintain even during hot and dry seasons. The plump pine needles also don't dry out when the tree sheds them, and pile up on the ground around the tree, trapping water. This spongy mass acts as a dampener for fires and further protects the pines from hot flames.
Mediterranean Cypress trees could be grown in regions where wildfire is commonplace hazard. For example, lines of them could be planted as firebreaks to protect local trees.
The researchers are now exploring whether there are any specific compounds in cypress trees that make them even more resistant to fire than other species. Who knows how this fire resistant branch of botany might grow in the future?