The invasive species Alliaria petiolata (garlic mustard) increases soil nutrient availability in northern hardwood-conifer forests
The invasion of non-native plants can alter the diversity and activity of soil microorganisms and nutrient cycling within forests. We used field studies to analyze the impact of a successful invasive groundcover, Alliaria petiolata, on fungal diversity, soil nutrient availability, and pH in five northeastern US forests. We also used laboratory and greenhouse experiments to test three mechanisms by which A. petiolata may alter soil processes: (1) the release of volatile, cyanogenic glucosides from plant tissue; (2) the exudation of plant secondary compounds from roots; and (3) the decomposition of litter. Fungal community composition was significantly different between invaded and uninvaded soils at one site. Compared to uninvaded plots, plots invaded by A. petiolata were consistently and significantly higher in N, P, Ca and Mg availability, and soil pH. In the laboratory, the release of volatile compounds from the leaves of A. petiolata did not significantly alter soil N availability. Similarly, in the greenhouse, the colonization of native soils by A. petiolata roots did not alter soil nutrient cycling, implying that the exudation of secondary compounds has little effect on soil processes. In a leaf litter decomposition experiment, however, green rosette leaves of A. petiolata significantly increased the rate of decomposition of native tree species. The accelerated decomposition of leaf litter from native trees in the presence of A. petiolata rosette leaves shows that the death of these high-nutrient-content leaves stimulates decomposition to a greater extent than any negative effect that secondary compounds may have on the activity of the microbes decomposing the native litter. The results presented here, integrated with recent related studies, suggest that this invasive plant may change soil nutrient availability in such a way as to create a positive feedback between site occupancy and continued proliferation.