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Sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense) responses as early indicators of low-level phosphorus enrichment in the Florida Everglades


Anthropogenic phosphorus (P) inputs to the Florida Everglades have produced dramatic changes in the wetland vegetation of this otherwise oligotrophic system. While the proliferation of undesirable plant species in response to enrichment has been well documented, nutrient-related changes in the physiological and morphological attributes of existing vegetation, prior to any shifts in species composition or changes in the spatial extent of certain taxa, have yet to be adequately characterized. In this experiment, three sawgrass-dominated areas were enriched with P for 3 years at rates of 0.4 g P/m2/year (HP), 0.1 g P/m2/year (LP), or 0 g P/m2/year (controls) to assess potential impacts of P-enriched discharges from stormwater treatment areas into the Everglades. Elevated concentrations of TP in rhizomes and leaves and reduced ratios of leaf N:P were detected in HP plants within ~1 year at most sites. Live leaf densities, plant heights, and plant densities of the HP groups were generally higher than LP and control groups after 2 years, a pattern that was evident even after major fire events. Total aboveground biomass was significantly elevated in both HP and LP treatments at two of the three sites after 3 years. No change in species composition was detected during the study. Planned hydrologic restoration measures will increase P loads into parts of the Everglades that have not previously experienced anthropogenic P enrichment. Monitoring native vegetation such as sawgrass can be a sensitive and relatively robust means of detecting unintended P enrichment in these areas prior to shifts in vegetation community composition or changes in area cover of key species.

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This work was funded by the South Florida Water Management District, 3301 Gun Club Road, West Palm Beach, FL 33406.

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Correspondence to Stephen M. Smith.

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Smith, S.M., Leeds, J.A., McCormick, P.V. et al. Sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense) responses as early indicators of low-level phosphorus enrichment in the Florida Everglades. Wetlands Ecol Manage 17, 291–302 (2009).

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  • Ecological indicators
  • Everglades
  • Phosphorus
  • Plant morphology
  • Sawgrass
  • Vegetation community
  • Wetlands