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Geranium bicknellii



2006 Louis-M. Landry

Reeves, Sonja L. 2007. Geranium bicknellii. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/forb/gerbic/all.html [].



Bicknell's cranesbill
Bicknell's geranium
northern cranesbill

The scientific name of Bicknell's cranesbill is Geranium bicknellii Britt. (Geraniaceae) [9,33,36,42,45,57,67,78,86,92].

Geranium bicknellii Britt. var. longipes (Wats.) Fern. [59,90]
Geranium carolinianum L. var. longipes Wats. [39]


No special status

Information on state-level protected status of plants in the United States is available at Plants Database.


SPECIES: Geranium bicknellii
Bicknell's cranesbill occurs in Alaska and Yukon east to Newfoundland, south to Tennessee, Colorado, Utah, and California [9,33,43,45,67,91]. Bicknell's cranesbill is rare in South Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. It is extirpated in Iowa and Connecticut [45]. Plants Database provides a distributional map of Bicknell's cranesbill.

FRES10 White-red-jack pine
FRES11 Spruce-fir
FRES19 Aspen-birch
FRES20 Douglas-fir
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES23 Fir-spruce
FRES24 Hemlock-Sitka spruce
FRES25 Larch
FRES26 Lodgepole pine

STATES/PROVINCES: (key to state/province abbreviations)


1 Northern Pacific Border
2 Cascade Mountains
3 Southern Pacific Border
4 Sierra Mountains
5 Columbia Plateau
6 Upper Basin and Range
7 Lower Basin and Range
8 Northern Rocky Mountains
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin
11 Southern Rocky Mountains
12 Colorado Plateau
13 Rocky Mountain Piedmont
14 Great Plains
15 Black Hills Uplift
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands

K008 Lodgepole pine-subalpine forest
K011 Western ponderosa forest
K012 Douglas-fir forest
K014 Grand fir-Douglas-fir forest
K017 Black Hills pine forest
K018 Pine-Douglas-fir forest
K093 Great Lakes spruce-fir forest
K094 Conifer bog
K095 Great Lakes pine forest
K096 Northeastern spruce-fir forest
K107 Northern hardwoods-fir forest

1 Jack pine
5 Balsam fir
12 Black spruce
13 Black spruce-tamarack
15 Red pine
16 Aspen
18 Paper birch
21 Eastern white pine
27 Sugar maple
37 Northern white-cedar
38 Tamarack
53 White oak
107 White spruce
110 Black oak
201 White spruce
202 White spruce-paper birch
203 Balsam poplar
204 Black spruce
210 Interior Douglas-fir
212 Western larch
213 Grand fir
217 Aspen
218 Lodgepole pine
223 Sitka spruce
224 Western hemlock
225 Western hemlock-Sitka spruce
227 Western redcedar-western hemlock
228 Western redcedar
229 Pacific Douglas-fir
230 Douglas-fir-western hemlock
237 Interior ponderosa pine
244 Pacific ponderosa pine-Douglas-fir
245 Pacific ponderosa pine
251 White spruce-aspen
252 Paper birch
253 Black spruce-white spruce
254 Black spruce-paper birch

109 Ponderosa pine shrubland
904 Black spruce-lichen
906 Broadleaf forest
920 White spruce-paper birch

Bicknell's cranesbill is not a dominant species in any of the habitat types that it occurs in. It most commonly occurs in northern boreal forests consisting of varying amounts of jack pine (Pinus banksiana), eastern white pine (P. strobus), red pine (P. resinosa), white spruce (Picea glauca), black spruce (P. mariana), balsam fir (Abies balsamea), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), and paper birch (Betula papyrifera) [7,31,38,55].


SPECIES: Geranium bicknellii
This description provides characteristics that may be relevant to fire ecology, and is not meant for identification. Keys for identification are available [9,33,36,42,49,57,67,78,86,90,91,92].

Bicknell's cranesbill is a native, annual or biennial forb. It has erect to decumbent stems ascending 4 to 24 inches (10-60 cm) [33,43,59] from a slender taproot [91]. In some cases Bicknell's cranesbill attains heights greater than 39 inches (100 cm) [9,86]. The flowers are few and small [73]. Fruits are cylindrical capsules and have long stiff hairs or bristles. Bicknell's cranesbill seeds are dark, oblong and finely pitted [43,47,59].


Bicknell's cranesbill regenerates from seed [5]. Information on pollination, breeding system, seed production, seed establishment, and growth are lacking for Bicknell's cranesbill. Research is needed on Bicknell's cranesbill regeneration.

Seed dispersal: The capsules of Bicknell's cranesbill open explosively, splitting lengthwise from the bottom and flinging seeds away from the parent plant [47]. The large seeds are not adapted for broad wind dispersal [31] but can be transferred by small mammals [5].

Seed banking: Bicknell's cranesbill stores long-lived propagules in the soil [10,74,75,76,77]. It germinates and flowers in the first 1 to 3 years after fire and stores seeds for long periods between brief postfire flowerings [41,60,68].

Bicknell's cranesbill seeds have been found in soils of stands 200+ years old; however, the viability of these seeds is unknown. A study conducted in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota, recovered seeds from soil samples taken from plots in which the time since last disturbance ranged from 3 to 200+ years. The plots occurred in stands of jack pine, red pine, eastern white pine, quaking aspen, balsam fir, paper birch, and white spruce. The viability of the seeds from the old growth was not revealed since seeds from all plots were combined to undergo germination tests. Thirty percent of the combined seeds germinated [7]. Fyles [31] reveals finding Bicknell's cranesbill seed in soil samples taken from mature jack pine and white spruce stands in central Alberta where parent plants did not occur. He suggests that the seed was deposited by plants growing in the stand in the past and that the population was maintained as a result of extended seed longevity [31].

Germination: The seeds of Bicknell's cranesbill, in most cases, are stimulated to germinate by fire-induced high temperatures [1,2,22,35,68,85,93]. Bicknell's cranesbill seeds present in both burned (Little Sioux wildfire) and unburned soils taken from 270-year-old red pine stands in the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area underwent greenhouse germination tests. Bicknell's cranesbill only germinated from soil taken from the burned land 3 years after fire, suggesting that heat is required to break dormancy [8]. A greenhouse study by Granstrom and Schimmel [35] revealed that dormancy was released after exposure to high temperatures (moist heat, water bath). There was progressively higher germination at temperatures above 100 to 110 F (40-45 C), with 90% germination after 10 minutes exposure at 150 to 210 F (65-100 C). Lethal temperatures for seeds were in the range of 200 to 230 F (95-110 C). Virtually no germination occurred in nonheated seeds [35].

Germination can also be triggered by the warming of the soil [47], such as when the canopy cover is removed. Bicknell's cranesbill was present on clearcuts on boreal mixed-wood (white spruce, black spruce, balsam fir, jack pine, quaking aspen, paper birch, balsam poplar) forests in Ontario, but was significantly (P<0.05) more abundant on wildfire sites dominated mainly by quaking aspen [38]. Bicknell's cranesbill was observed growing 3 and 5 years after clearcutting stands dominated by quaking aspen in Alberta. The harvested forest was of fire origin, but no further information on the fire was given [79].

Bicknell's cranesbill may germinate in the absence of heat treatments as well. Soil samples from partially cut or clearcut boreal stands in the Black Sturgeon Forest northeast of Thunder Bay, Ontario, underwent 3 months of cold storage to mimic stratification. Subsequent greenhouse germination tests were used to identify seed banking species. Bicknell's cranesbill did germinate from these soils; however, there was no mention of heat treatment applied to samples or recent fire on sampled sites. Bicknell's cranesbill was not found in the aboveground vegetation at the study site [64].

Vegetative regeneration: Information on vegetative regeneration in Bicknell's cranesbill is lacking. Bicknell's cranesbill may sprout from the root crown after top-kill; however, reproduction from seed is Bicknell's cranesbill's primary method of regeneration.

Site descriptions for Bicknell's cranesbill
State, Region, Province Site characteristics
California Open woodlands, coniferous forests, and disturbed places; 2,000 to 4,900 feet (600-1,500 m) [42,59]
Colorado 5,500 to 7,000 feet (1,700-2,100 m) [39]
Illinois Sandy woods, fields; rare [57]
Michigan Rock outcrops; clearings and burns, gravel pits, and trails in woods; open, usually dry, sandy or gravelly ground [86]
Montana Open woods and clearings [20]
Utah Shady moist roadsides at 6,000 to 8,000 feet (1,800-2400 m) [91]
West Virginia Open woods and clearings [78]
Alaska and adjacent Canada Woods, disturbed soil [44]
Blue Ridge Open woods and clearings; infrequent [92]
Great Plains Upland woods; rare [36]
New England Roadsides, "waste land", dry ledges [69]
Northeast US and adjacent Canada Open woods and fields [33]
Pacific Northwest Woodland or open fields [43]
Uinta Basin, Utah Burnt patches; 7,200 feet (2,200 m) [34]
Nova Scotia Recently burned or cleared areas; rare [67]

Bicknell's cranesbill is a shade intolerant, ephemeral, pioneer species that occurs after fire from soil stored seed [10,28,46,68,74] already present at the time of disturbance.

As a residual, colonizing species following fire [74], Bicknell's cranesbill most often occurs in early postfire communities; however, there is evidence that it can occur in later seral communities. Maycock [55] reports the presence of Bicknell's cranesbill in 75- to 85-year-old white spruce and balsam fir stands on the Keweenaw Peninsula, northern Michigan, that were free from "unnatural disturbance". The presence of charcoal in the soil indicated that the stand was of fire origin. Bicknell's cranesbill's presence was also recorded in a 130-year-old mixed stand dominated by sugar maple (Acer saccharinum) along with balsam fir, white spruce, and red pine [55]. There was no mention of previous fire in this stand. Taylor [81] reports the presence of Bicknell's cranesbill on open stream banks and meadows found within climax forests (mainly western hemlock-Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis)) of southeastern Alaska.


Flowering dates for Bicknell's cranesbill
State, Region, Province Anthesis period
California July to August [59]
Illinois June to August [57]
West Virginia July to September [78]
Blue Ridge July to September [92]
Great Plains June to September [36]
New England Late May to July [69]
Northeast US and adjacent Canada May to September [33]
Pacific Northwest May to August [43]
Uinta Basin, Utah July [34]
Nova Scotia Late June to July [67]


SPECIES: Geranium bicknellii
Fire adaptations: Bicknell's cranesbill regenerates after fire from on-site seed stored in the soil seed bank [74,75,76,88,89].

Fire regimes: Bicknell's cranesbill occurs in many fire-dependent ecosystems. Fire regimes for plant communities with Bicknell's cranesbill vary from frequent understory fires in black oak, ponderosa pine, and larch and frequent stand-replacement fire in jack pine to infrequent, stand-replacement crown fires in white spruce. The northern boreal forests where Bicknell's cranesbill most often occurs are characterized by mixed-severity and stand-replacing fire regimes. Fire-return intervals in jack pine stands in eastern Canada and the Great Lakes were as low as 15 to 35 years. Fire-return intervals averaged between 50 and 150 years in white spruce stands [27].

The following table provides fire-return intervals for plant communities and ecosystems where Bicknell's cranesbill is important. Find fire regime information for the plant communities in which this species may occur by entering the species name in the FEIS home page under "Find Fire Regimes".

Fire-return intervals for plant communities with Bicknell's cranesbill
Community or Ecosystem Dominant Species Fire-Return Interval Range (years)
sugar maple Acer saccharum >1,000 [87]
tamarack Larix laricina 35-200 [63]
western larch Larix occidentalis 25-350 [12,18,26]
Great Lakes spruce-fir Picea-Abies spp. 35 to >200
northeastern spruce-fir Picea-Abies spp. 35-200
black spruce Picea mariana 35-200
conifer bog* Picea mariana-Larix laricina 35-200 [27]
jack pine Pinus banksiana <35 to 200 [24,27]
Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine* Pinus contorta var. latifolia 25-340 [17,18,80]
Sierra lodgepole pine* Pinus contorta var. murrayana 35-200
Pacific ponderosa pine* Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa 1-47 [11]
interior ponderosa pine* Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum 2-30 [11,16,50]
red pine (Great Lakes region) Pinus resinosa 3-18 (x=3-10) [23,30]
red-white pine* (Great Lakes region) Pinus resinosa-P. strobus 3-200 [24,40,52]
eastern white pine Pinus strobus 35-200 [87]
aspen-birch Populus tremuloides-Betula papyrifera 35-200 [27,87]
quaking aspen (west of the Great Plains) Populus tremuloides 7-120 [11,37,56]
Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir* Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca 25-100 [11,13,14]
coastal Douglas-fir* Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii 40-240 [11,58,66]
black oak Quercus velutina <35 [87]
western redcedar-western hemlock Thuja plicata-Tsuga heterophylla >200 [11]
*fire-return interval varies widely; trends in variation are noted in the species review

Ground residual colonizer (on-site, initial community)


SPECIES: Geranium bicknellii
Bicknell's cranesbill is associated with early postfire environments [6,46] and is not usually recorded in stands prior to burning [1,2,5,6,15]. If it was present in the aboveground vegetation before fire, fire would likely top-kill Bicknell's cranesbill.

Bicknell's cranesbill primarily occurs on burned lands. There are many documented instances where Bicknell's cranesbill was present after fire and not noted prior. Bicknell's cranesbill was present only after prescribed burning on black oak savannas at Hoosier Prairie Nature Preserve, Indiana [15], was found on burned land only in studies conducted after a variety of fires on jack pine sites in Superior National Forest, Minnesota [5], and was exclusive to jack pine sites burned under prescription and wildfire in northern lower Michigan [1,2]. The table below provides further evidence of Bicknell's cranesbill's absence from prefire communities.

Percent of plots (n=30) in which Bicknell's cranesbill was found in jack pine stands burned under prescription in northeastern Minnesota [6]

East Bearskin Lake

Grass Lake

Cut burned Cut unburned Cut burned
Precut Postfire Precut Postcut Precut Postfire
1960 1961 1962 1963 1964 1960 1961 1963 1962 1963 1964
0 100 77 87 23 0 0 0 0 97 97

Bicknell's cranesbill responds favorably to fire and the conditions associated with the immediate postfire environment [6,46]. The passage of fire and accompanying high temperatures break dormancy of and stimulate the soil stored seeds to germinate [1,2,3,22,35,51,68,85,93]. Keown [46] states that as a general rule, the more "intense" a fire is, the more favorable the conditions are for Bicknell's cranesbill germination. Because Bicknell's cranesbill is a pioneer species with rapid growth, it most often establishes after fire. Plants die off without recurrent disturbance [10].

Bicknell's cranesbill is abundant in early postfire communities and becomes infrequent or absent in subsequent years [1,3,4,6,21,25,54,60,62,84,94]. Within 3 to 5 years after the Sundance Fire in northern Idaho's western redcedar-western hemlock forest type, Bicknell's cranesbill went from 50% frequency to 0% and became absent at all study sites [74]. Bicknell's cranesbill cover was 24% the first year following fire on jack pine sites in northern lower Michigan and reduced to scattered individuals after 2 to 6 years [1,2]. After the Pattee Canyon Fire burned through Douglas-fir habitat types in western Montana, Bicknell's cranesbill bloomed and set seed in the first postfire year and almost disappeared the second postfire year [25]. Sidhu [71] studied the early changes in biomass and frequency of minor plant species following partial logging and prescribed burning in eastern white pine forests near Chalk River, Ontario. Bicknell's cranesbill occurred in logged, unburned stands with an average percent frequency of 5%. Its average percent frequency in stands that were logged then burned was 23%. Sidhu states that Bicknell's cranesbill appeared, from seed origin, 3 weeks after burning and was predominant only after fire. Burning was conducted in July and sampling in August, 1972. Bicknell's cranesbill was not present before logging and burning. Sidhu [72] continued sampling in September 1972 and June 1973 and provided average percent ground cover data for Bicknell's cranesbill for all sample periods, as shown in the table below. Bicknell's cranesbill cover on burned sites reached a maximum of 13% the summer after treatment. This part of the series did not include data for Bicknell's cranesbill in the logged-unburned stand, whereas, mentioned above, it was recorded previously.

Average percent ground cover of Bicknell's cranesbill at different times following logging and prescribed burning in white pine forests of Ontario [72]


Prefire (July 1972) Time after fire
1 month (August 1972) 2 months (September 1972) 11 months (June 1973)
Stand 17 21 25 4 24 25 25
Logged-unburned -- -- -- x 0.30 x 3.00
Logged-backfire -- x x x 1.60 4.50 3.75
102B-headfire -- x x 0.20 6.00 6.95 13.10
x = Bicknell's cranesbill present but with insignificant cover, -- = not present

Bicknell's cranesbill seedlings establish more densely with increasing fire severity. Ohmann and Grigal [61] contrasted vegetation responses following a spring burn (Little Sioux Fire) and a summer burn (Prayer Lake Fire). The spring fire was low severity in jack pine forest. It destroyed the litter layer but left much of the cool, moist, lower soil layers intact. The higher-severity summer fire consumed virtually all of the warm, dry forest floor. Bicknell's cranesbill did occur following the Little Sioux Fire but was much more abundant after the Prayer Lake Fire [61]. Average percent Bicknell's cranesbill frequency 4 years after the Black River fire in southeastern Manitoba was 16% on scorched (litter not burned or partially burned), 44% on lightly burned (litter burned but without or very limited duff consumption), and 59% on severely burned (forest floor completely consumed) stands. The dominant species were quaking aspen, balsam fir, white and black spruce, and/or jack pine. Bicknell's cranesbill did not occur in a 10-year-old or mature stand [88,89]. Study sites on the Superior National Forest were subject to prescribed fire and wildfire. An unburned portion was also included in the study area. Bicknell's cranesbill occurred on burned lands only and was most prevalent on the severely burned sites. Its percent frequency was 100% after high-severity wildfire swept through jack pine-black spruce stands and 23% and 47% in 2 stands of clearcut jack pine with some quaking aspen and paper birch after a low-severity prescribed burn [5].

Hamilton's Research Paper (Hamilton 2006b) provides further information on prescribed fire and postfire response of species including Bicknell's cranesbill.

Since fire is required for germination of Bicknell's cranesbill's soil-stored seeds, the use of fire for management purposes could only have a positive effect on Bicknell's cranesbill populations. Severe fire would likely be more effective than low-severity fire for promoting Bicknell's cranesbill.


SPECIES: Geranium bicknellii
Deer preferred grazing Bicknell's cranesbill growing in young clearcut-and-burned sites in the Seeley-Swan area of northwestern Montana [54].

Palatability/nutritional value: No information is available on this topic.

Cover value: No information is available on this topic.

No information is available on this topic.

No information is available on this topic.

Bicknell's cranesbill was listed as a "weedy species" occurring (percent frequency 0.8%) on agricultural fields in Manitoba [82].

Geranium bicknellii: REFERENCES

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2. Abrams, Marc D.; Dickmann, Donald I. 1982. Early revegetation of clear-cut and burned jack pine sites in northern lower Michigan. Canadian Journal of Botany. 60: 946-954. [7238]
3. Abrams, Marc D.; Sprugel, Douglas G.; Dickmann, Donald I. 1985. Multiple successional pathways on recently disturbed jack pine sites in Michigan. Forest Ecology and Management. 10: 31-48. [7237]
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8. Ahlgren, Clifford E. 1979. Emergent seedlings on soil from burned and unburned red pine forest. Minnesota Forestry Research Notes No. 273. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota, College of Forestry. 4 p. [16910]
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