Shrub invasion of grassland: Recruitment is continuous and not regulated by herbaceous biomass or density

Joel R. Brown, Steve Archer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

199 Scopus citations


Proliferation of woody plants in grasslands and savannas since 1800s has been widely documented. In the southwestern United States, increased abundance of honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa var. glandulosa) has been attributed to heavy grazing by livestock. Here, we test the hypothesis that P. glandulosa invasion of grasslands requires, first, reductions in herbaceous biomass and density such as those that accompany livestock grazing and, second, episodes of high soil moisture availability. No combination of grass density (nonmanipulated or reduced 50%) or defoliation (none, moderate, heavy) significantly affected P. glandulosa seedling emergence within a watering regime (natural and supplemented) at our field site in semiarid southern Texas. Seedling emergence on plots receiving only natural rainfall was high (42%), despite the fact that precipitation was substantially below normal. Supplemental watering, to generate moisture levels approximating years of unusually high annual rainfall, increased emergence to 59%. Seedling survival after 2 yr was high (62-77%) and statistically comparable across the density, defoliation, and watering treatments. Net photosynthesis (A(n)) of 1-yr-old seedlings was enhanced by supplemental watering, but reductions in grass density or biomass had little effect on seedling A(n) or xylem water potential. Height, aboveground biomass, and leaf area were comparable among 1- and 2-yr-old seedings across all density, defoliation, and watering combinations. High seedling Emergence and survival on unwatered plots, even during a 'drought year,' suggests that Prosopis recruitment is not contingent upon unusual or episodic rainfall. Reductions in biomass and density of herbaceous vegetation had no influence on seedling emergence, growth, or survival, suggesting that Prosopis invasion is minimally influenced by grass competition. Historic grazing at this site appears to have altered herbaceous composition and reduced above- and belowground biomass production below the threshold level required for competitive exclusion of woody vegetation. Such data suggest that rates and patterns of seed dispersal may be the primary determinants of P. glandulosa encroachment on present-day landscapes in semiarid regions. Minimizing livestock dispersal of seed (in the case of leguminous shrubs) and maintenance of an effective fire regime (through production of fine fuels) may be crucial for sustaining herbaceous composition and production in grazed systems prone to invasion by unpalatable woody plants.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2385-2396
Number of pages12
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 1999


  • Chloris cucullata
  • Competition of invasive woody plants in grasslands
  • Grazing
  • Photosynthesis
  • Plant invasion
  • Prosopis glandulosa
  • Savanna
  • Seedling establishment
  • Tree-grass interactions
  • Woody
  • Xylem water potential

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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