, Volume 23, Issue 5, pp 1289-1302
Date: 12 Mar 2014

People move but cultivated plants stay: abandoned farmsteads support the persistence and spread of alien plants

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Agricultural land abandonment and rural depopulation are frequent phenomena in many parts of the developed world that often result in considerable conservation benefits. Although settlements are hotspots of alien species that may threaten ecosystem recovery, no study to date has systematically assessed the persistence and spread of cultivated alien plants following the abandonment of rural settlements. By examining 190 farmsteads abandoned between 1956 and 2005 in central Hungary, we show that cultivated species can remain for decades at abandoned settlements, with many species occurring in similar frequency in long-ago and recently abandoned farmsteads. Many species spread vegetatively, and persistence through time was not related to estimated longevity for woody species. Furthermore, by analysing vegetation samples from the surrounding landscape, we found that some of these cultivated species also occurred outside farmsteads in areas where they had not been planted, most often in tree plantations. In addition, the number of escaped cultivated species occurring in tree plantations was positively related to farmstead density, suggesting a prominent role of farmsteads as a source. Our results suggest that rural settlements and rural depopulation provide a special opportunity for cultivated alien plants. These special habitats serve as incubators, where many cultivated species can survive long-term, and even spread to the surrounding landscape. We conclude that farmsteads have a long-lasting local and landscape-scale legacy, and imprint a unique signature on the flora of their broader region.

Communicated by B.D. Hoffmann.