Plant Ecology

, Volume 186, Issue 1, pp 23-35

First online:

The effect of soil nitrogen on competition between native and exotic perennial grasses from northern coastal California

  • Meredith A. ThomsenAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of WisconsinDepartment of Integrative Biology, University of California Email author 
  • , Jeffrey D. CorbinAffiliated withDepartment of Integrative Biology, University of California
  • , Carla M. D’AntonioAffiliated withDepartment of Integrative Biology, University of CaliforniaDepartment of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, University of California

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The invasion of European perennial grasses represents a new threat to the native coastal prairie of northern California. Many coastal prairie sites also experience anthropogenic nitrogen (N) deposition or increased N availability as a result of invasion by N-fixing shrubs. We tested the hypothesis that greater seedling competitive ability and greater responsiveness to high N availability of exotic perennial grasses facilitates their invasion in coastal prairie. We evaluated pairwise competitive responses and effects, and the occurrence of asymmetrical competition, among three common native perennial grasses (Agrostis oregonensis, Festuca rubra, and Nassella pulchra) and three exotic perennial grasses (Holcus lanatus, Phalaris aquatica, and Festuca arundinacea), at two levels of soil N. We also compared the root and shoot biomass and response to fertilization of singly-grown plants, so we could evaluate how performance in competition related to innate plant traits. Competitive effects and responses were negatively correlated and in general varied continuously across native and exotic species. Two exceptions were the exotic species Holcus, which had large effects on neighbors and small responses to them, and competed asymmetrically with all other species in the experiment, and the native grass Nassella, which had strong responses to but little effect on neighbors, and was out-competed by all but one other species in the experiment. High allocation to roots and high early relative growth rate appear to explain Holcus’s competitive dominance, but its shoot biomass when grown alone was not significantly greater than those of the species it out-competed. Competitive dynamics were unaffected by fertilization. Therefore, we conclude that seedling competitive ability alone does not explain the increasing dominance of exotic perennial grasses in California coastal prairie. Furthermore, since native and exotic species responded individualistically, grouping species as ‘natives’ and ‘exotics’ obscured underlying variation within the two categories. Finally, elevated soil N does not appear to influence competition among the native and exotic perennial grasses studied, so reducing soil N pools may not be a critical step for the restoration of California coastal prairie.


Diallel experiment Exotic species Fertilization Greenhouse experiment Invasion