The Botanical Review

, Volume 57, Issue 1, pp 1–32 | Cite as

Plant litter: Its dynamics and effects on plant community structure

  • José M. Facelli
  • Steward T. A. Pickett


We discuss the dynamics of plant litter, the effects of litter on the chemical and physical environment, the direct and indirect effects of plant litter on plant populations and communities, and different adaptative traits that may be related to litter accumulation. The production of litter depends primarily on the site productivity, but other properties of the environment, as well as chance, may introduce important variation. The existence of time lags between the production of plant organs and their transformation into litter appears as a relevant character of litter dynamics seldom included in models. Herbivory, and other processes that destroy biomass or reduce productivity, may reduce the amount of litter produced. The destruction of litter encompasses a complex of interactions. The main processes, including physical and chemical degradation, consumption by invertebrates and decomposition, are differentially affected by the environment and by the physical and chemical characteristics of the litter itself. The relative importance of those processes varies among systems.

Litter alters the physical and chemical environment directly and indirectly. The decomposition of litter may release both nutrients and phytotoxic substances into the soil. The physical changes produced by litter also alter the activity of decomposers, resulting in an indirect effect on the chemical environment. The accumulated litter intercepts light, shading seeds and seedlings, and reduces the thermal amplitude in the soil. By reducing maximum soil temperatures, and creating a barrier to water vapor diffusion, litter reduces evaporation from the soil. However, litter may also diminish water availability when it retains a large proportion of rainfall. Litter creates a physical barrier for seedling and sprout emergence and to seeds reaching the soil.

The heterogeneity introduced into the abiotic environment by the patchy accumulation of litter may affect community structure. This effect may be both direct (when the litter of one species affects the performance of a second species) or indirect (when litter produced by one species alters the outcome of the interaction between a second and a third species).

Litter tolerance, timing of litterfall to optimize external nutrient recycling, and accumulation of litter to deter competitors (either through physical or chemical effects) have been postulated as strategies associated with litter accumulation. The existing evidence shows that only tolerance to litter accumulation admits adaptative value as the most likely explanation.


Soil Temperature Leaf Litter Botanical Review Gross Primary Production Plant Litter 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


En ésta revisión bibliográfica analizamos la dinámica de la broza, sus efectos sobre el ambiente fisico y quimíco, y los efectos directos e indirectos de la acumulación de broza sobre la estructura y dinámica de las poblaciones y comunidades vegetales. Finalmente, analizamos distintas adaptaciones de las poblaciones vegetales relacionadas con la acumulación de broza.

La cantidad de broza acumulada en un sitio depende primariamente de su productividad, pero varios otros factores ambientales, así como el azar, pueden introducir importantes variaciones. El lapso entre la formatión de un órgano y su muerte y caída, puede ser un factor de gran importancia en la dinámica de la broza. El consumo heterotrófico, así como otros factores fisicos que destruyen biomasa o reducen la productividad, también puede afectar su acumulación. La destructión de la broza constituye un proceso cuasi-sucesional. Los principales subprocesos involucrados—fragmentatión fisica, consumo por invertebrados y descomposición—son controlados por factores ambientales y por las propiedades de la broza misma.

La acumulación de broza puede afectar profundamente el ambiente físico y químico. Los cambios fisicos que induce pueden alterar la actividad de los descomponedores, mientras que su descomposición libera nutrientes y compuestos fitotóxicos en el suelo. La broza intercepta luz, sombreando semillas y plántulas, y reduciendo la amplitud térmica del suelo. Al reducir la temperature del suelo, y al crear una barrera a la difusión del vapor de agua, la broza reduce la evaporación desde el suelo. Sin embargo, puede también disminuir la disponibilidad de agua, si retiene una proporción considerable de la lluvia. Además, la broza constituye un barrera fisica que puede impedir la llegada al suelo de algunas semillas, así como dificultar la emergencia de plántulas y brotes.

Los patrones de acumulación de broza introducen heterogeneidad temporal y espacial, que puede afectar la estructura y dinámica de la comunidad. Sus efectos pueden ser directos (cuando la presencia de broza afecta el éxito de una población) o indirectos (cuando el efecto de la broza sobre una población altera el resultado de la interacción con una segunda). Adicionalmente, la broza puede afectar las comunidades de invertebrados, lo que puede a su vez repercutir en la comunidad vegetal.

Varios autores han propuesto que la tolerancia a la presencia de broza, la regulación del ciclo de nutrientes mediante distintas estrategias foliares, y la producción de broza como un medio de combatir competidores mediante sus efectos fisicos o químicos, son componentes de estrategias adaptativas de distintas poblaciones. La evidencia disponible sugiere que sólo la tolerancia a la broza acepta valor adaptativo como explicación más verosímil.


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Copyright information

© The New York Botanical Garden 1991

Authors and Affiliations

  • José M. Facelli
    • 1
  • Steward T. A. Pickett
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of Ecosystem Studies Mary Flagler Cary ArboretumNew York Botanical GardenMillbrook

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