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Irrigation and fertilization effects on seed number, size, germination and seedling growth: implications for desert shrub establishment

Abstract

Plants with limited resources adjust partitioning among growth, survival, and reproduction. We tested the effects of water and nutrient amendments on seed production, size, and quality in Sarcobatus vermiculatus (greasewood) to assess the magnitude and importance of changes in reproductive partitioning. In addition, we assessed interactions among the environment of seed-producing plants (adult plant scale), seed size, and seedling microenvironment (seedling scale) on successful seedling establishment. Interactions of these factors determine the scale of resource heterogeneity that affects seedling establishment in deserts. Both total number of seeds produced per plant and seed quality (weight and germination) increased significantly in the enriched treatment in a 3-year field experiment. Seedling length 3 days after germination and seed N concentration, other measures of seed quality, were higher for seed from both irrigated and enriched plants than for seed from control plants. Field S. vermiculatus seed production and quality can be substantially increased with irrigation and nutrient enrichment at the adult plant scale and this allows management of seed availability for restoration. However, based on a greenhouse study, seedling environment, not the environment of the seed-producing plant or seed size, was the most important factor affecting seedling germination, survival, and growth. Thus it appears that production of more seed may be more important than improved seed quality, because higher quality seed did not compensate for a low-resource seedling environment. For both natural establishment and restoration this suggests that heterogeneity at the scale of seedling microsites, perhaps combined with fertilization of adult shrubs (or multi-plant patches), would produce the greatest benefit for establishing seedlings in the field.

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Acknowledgements

Funding was provided by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to A. N. B., the California State Lands Commission (C-99017), and the California Agricultural Experiment Station. We thank Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and US Borax (Lake Minerals Operation) for cooperation. Research assistance provided by members of the Richards’ lab is greatly appreciated.

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Correspondence to A. N. Breen.

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Communicated by John Keeley.

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Breen, A.N., Richards, J.H. Irrigation and fertilization effects on seed number, size, germination and seedling growth: implications for desert shrub establishment. Oecologia 157, 13–19 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-008-1049-3

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-008-1049-3

Keywords

  • Fecundity
  • Maternal environment
  • Sarcobatus vermiculatus
  • Seed quality