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

Mark A. Davis, Keith J. Wrage, Peter B. Reich, Mark G. Tjoelker, Toni Schaeffer, Carolyn Muermann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

209 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)341-350
Number of pages10
JournalPlant Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1999

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was supported by the National Science Foundation grants DEB-9419922 and DEB-9411972. We thank Toby Query, Paul Bazakas, Michelle Crozier, and Ben Davis for helping to set up the experiment, Nathan Dewar, Josh Huntington, Phung Gip, Sash Deprez, and Eliot Mitchell for their help with weeding, insect control and the water treatments, and for their assistance in measuring seedlings. We are especially grateful to David Bosanko, Dale Krueger, and Troy Mielke for their assistance in setting up the irrigation system. We thank Kit Bingham for his statistical help, and David Grigal, David Tilman, Jean Knops, David Peterson, and two anonymous reviewers for their suggestions on earlier versions of the manuscript.

Copyright 2004 Elsevier Science B.V., Amsterdam. All rights reserved.


  • Competition
  • Grasslands
  • Savannas
  • Semi-arid environments
  • Soil water
  • Tree seedling establishment


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