Is oak establishment in old-fields and savanna openings context dependent?

Ian A. Dickie, S. A. Schnitzer, P. B. Reich, S. E. Hobbie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


Multiple factors are known to influence tree seedling establishment, yet the degree to which these factors depend on each other and on spatial context is largely unknown. We examined the influence of herbaceous competition and water and nitrogen limitations on tree seedling establishment as functions of distance from trees (within-site spatial context) and site history (between-site spatial context; as old-fields vs. savanna openings). We grew Quercus ellipsoidalis E.J. Hill (pin oak) and Q. macrocarpa Michx. (bur oak) seedlings for 3 years in abandoned agricultural fields and savannas in central Minnesota, USA, near and distant from adult oak trees, with and without water and nitrogen resource additions, and with and without clipping of herbaceous vegetation (reducing above-ground competition). The strongest treatment effects were found in response to distance from trees and clipping herbaceous vegetation. Ectomycorrhizal infection, year 1 foliar N concentrations, and survival were greater in seedlings growing near vs. distant from adult trees, while clipping herbaceous vegetation increased above-ground seedling biomass but reduced seedling heights, regardless of distance from adult trees. There were conflicting effects of resource addition, which were dependent on clipping of herbaceous vegetation and site (savanna vs. old-field). Distance from adult trees and clipping herbaceous vegetation appear to have largely independent effects. Thus, while being near trees benefits seedlings, probably via increased mycorrhizal infection, competition from herbaceous vegetation limits seedlings regardless of distance from trees. In contrast, the effects of resource addition were more context dependent, interacting significantly with herbaceous context and site. The factors influencing seedling success can perhaps be best conceptualized as a series of largely independent environmental filters: seedlings near trees have increased mycorrhizal infection, nutrient uptake and survival, but face competition from herbaceous vegetation regardless of distance from trees. The slow encroachment of woody vegetation into old-fields and savanna openings in this region is likely to be the result of the net cumulative effect of such filters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)309-320
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2007


  • Competition
  • Facilitation
  • Forest dynamics
  • Herbaceous vegetation
  • Mycorrhiza
  • Nitrogen
  • Succession
  • Water


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