Effects of nurse shrubs and biochar on planted conifer seedling survival and growth in a high-severity burn patch in New Mexico, USA

  • Christopher Marsh (Contributor)
  • Joseph Blankinship (Contributor)
  • Matthew D. Hurteau (Contributor)



The synergistic effects of widespread high-severity wildfire and anthropogenic climate change are driving large-scale vegetation conversion. In the southwestern United States, areas that were once dominated by conifer forests are now shrub- or grasslands after high-severity wildfire, an ecosystem conversion that could be permanent without human intervention. Yet, the reforestation of these landscapes is rarely successful, with a mean planted seedling survival of just 25 %. Given these low rates, we carried out a planting experiment to quantify the impacts of biochar as a soil amendment and shrubs as nurse plants on planted conifer seedling survival and growth following high-severity wildfire. We planted 1200 seedlings of three species (Pinus ponderosa, P. strobiformis, and Pseudotsuga menziesii) in a 2-ha area within the footprint of the Las Conchas fire in New Mexico, USA. We used four treatments: under shrubs, or in the open and with or without biochar in a full-factorial design. We found that planting tree seedlings underneath shrubs increased tree seedling survival by 46 % after 3 years, with some marginal evidence that shrubs inhibited seedling diameter growth (mean R2 = 0.08). The addition of biochar increased seedling survival by 11 % but had no effect on seedling growth. Our study suggests that planted seedling survival in post-wildfire areas can be increased by planting under shrubs in soil amended with biochar. The widespread adoption of these methods may improve the success rates of post-wildfire reforestation efforts in semi-arid areas, regaining some of the ecosystem services lost to high-severity wildfire.
Date made availableApr 6 2023

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