, Volume 145, Issue 2, pp 341-350

Survival, growth, and photosynthesis of tree seedlings competing with herbaceous vegetation along a water-light-nitrogen gradient

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Abstract

In herbaceous dominated patches and ecosystems, tree establishment is influenced partly by the ability of woody seedlings to survive and grow in direct competition with herbaceous vegetation. We studied the importance of season long wet and dry spells on the competitive interactions between herbaceous vegetation and oak seedlings along a light and nitrogen gradient in an infertile secondary successional grassland in central North America. We conducted a field experiment in which seedlings of bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and northern pin oak (Q. ellipsoidalis) were exposed to two levels of light (full sun and 80% shade), three levels of nitrogen input (0, 5, 15 g m−1 yr−1), and three levels of water input (low, medium and high). In addition, seedlings were grown with and without the presence of surrounding herbaceous vegetation under both light and all three water levels. Seedling survival, growth, and rate of photosynthesis were significantly affected by competition with herbaceous vegetation and these effects varied along the multiple resource gradient. Overall, seedling survival of both species was significantly greater in wetter and shaded plots and when surrounding herbaceous vegetation was removed and was lower in nitrogen enriched plots. We found that soil water was significantly affected by varying inputs of water, light, and the presence or absence of herbaceous vegetation, and that seedling survival and rate of photosynthesis were highly correlated with available soil water. Our findings show that the impact of season long wet and dry spells on tree seedling success in grasslands can be affected by light and soil nitrogen availability.