Plant Ecology

, Volume 201, Issue 2, pp 445-456

First online:

California native and exotic perennial grasses differ in their response to soil nitrogen, exotic annual grass density, and order of emergence

  • Joel K. AbrahamAffiliated withDepartment of Integrative Biology, University of California, BerkeleyScheller Teacher Education Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Email author 
  • , Jeffrey D. CorbinAffiliated withDepartment of Integrative Biology, University of California, BerkeleyDepartment of Biological Sciences, Union College
  • , Carla M. D’AntonioAffiliated withDepartment of Integrative Biology, University of California, BerkeleyEcology, Evolution & Marine Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara

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Early emergence of plant seedlings can offer strong competitive advantages over later-germinating neighbors through the preemption of limiting resources. This phenomenon may have contributed to the persistent dominance of European annual grasses over native perennial grasses in California grasslands, since the former species typically germinate earlier in the growing season than the latter and grow rapidly after establishing. Recently, European perennial grasses have been spreading into both non-native annual and native perennial coastal grass stands in California. These exotic perennials appear to be less affected by the priority effects arising from earlier germination by European annual grasses. In addition, these species interactions in California grasslands may be mediated by increasing anthropogenic or natural soil nitrogen inputs. We conducted a greenhouse experiment to test the effects of order of emergence and annual grass seedling density on native and exotic perennial grass seedling performance across different levels of nitrogen availability. We manipulated the order of emergence and density of an exotic annual grass (Bromus diandrus) grown with either Nassella pulchra (native perennial grass), Festuca rubra (native perennial grass), or Holcus lanatus (exotic perennial grass), with and without added nitrogen. Earlier B. diandrus emergence and higher B. diandrus density resulted in greater reduction in the aboveground productivity of the perennial grasses. However, B. diandrus suppressed both native perennials to a greater extent than it did H. lanatus. Nitrogen addition had no effect on the productivity of native perennials, but greatly increased the growth of the exotic perennial H. lanatus, grown with B. diandrus. These results suggest that the order of emergence of exotic annual versus native perennial grass seedlings could play an important role in the continued dominance of exotic annual grasses in California. The expansion of the exotic perennial grass H. lanatus in coastal California may be linked to its higher tolerance of earlier-emerging annual grasses and its ability to access soil resources amidst high densities of annual grasses.


Exotic species Fertilization Germination Invasion Priority effects Seedling dynamics