Flammable organic compounds: Rosmarinus officinalis
Given an ignition source and the right environmental conditions, all plants can potentially burn. However, some plants have characteristics that make them burn more easily. The capacity to store volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as aromatic terpenes, can be considered one of these flammability-enhancing traits (flammable organic compounds, FOCs), as has now been demonstrated for Rosmarinus officinalis : The more terpenes in the leaves, the more quickly they ignite (i.e., less time to ignition) (Figure below). Other species enhance flammability by having a very fine fuel, retaining dead fuel or having a flammable canopy structure [2-5]. There is growing evidence that flammability-enhancing traits are adaptive in Mediterranean fire-prone ecosystems [2-4]. To what extent the evolutionary pressure exerted by fire could have contributed to the abundance of aromatic plants in many fire-prone ecosystems (mints, rosemary, thyme, eucalypts, etc...) remains unknown. But certainly Mediterranean ecosystems are probably the most aromatic and among the most flammable ecosystems in the world.
Figure: relation between time to ignition (given a heat source, corrected by the differences in moisture) and the contents of terpenes (here the sum of camphene, para-cymene, borneol, limonene) in leaves of a wild population of rosmary (Rosmarinus officinalis), in Eastern Spain (from ). The top right corner shows the epiraditor, the device for testing for time-to-ignition (see ).