Trait responses of a grassland shrub invader to altered moisture regimes

William A. Rutherford, Steven R. Archer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: We sought to identify plant traits important for initial establishment of a globally invasive shrub, Prosopis spp. (mesquite), by quantifying morphological and ecophysiological responses of seedlings to contrasting moisture regimes. Our model plant was Prosopis velutina, a prominent invader of North American semi-desert grasslands. Methods: Seedlings received one of three watering levels corresponding to regional ‘ambient’ (100%), ‘dry’ (−65%; 65% reduction of ambient), and ‘wet’ (+165%; 65% increase above ambient) growing season precipitation regimes. A total of 32 plant performance (e.g., biomass and growth) and functional (e.g., morphological and physiological) traits were assessed when seedlings reached 11- and 22-days old. Results: Germination under dry conditions was high (72%) and only slightly reduced compared to ambient and wet conditions with subsequent seedling survival unaffected. High trait variation enabled early recruitment over the range of soil moisture conditions, including extreme drought. Root volume, surface area, tips, tap root length, and leaf length functional traits were top predictors of seedling performance, with fresh weight, absolute growth rate, and root mass secondarily contributing to establishment. Conclusion: No physiological functional traits were significant in predicting performance or discriminating between moisture regimes; suggesting morphological traits for maintaining metabolic and hydraulic function are key to early establishment. Dry conditions reduced germination and slowed P. velutina seedling growth but did not prevent early establishment. Thus, recruitment of certain dryland shrubs may not be episodic with respect to above-average rainfall. Indeed, early recruitment of P. velutina and functionally similar species can potentially occur even in moisture conditions well below-average.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)141-161
Number of pages21
JournalPlant and Soil
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jan 2023


  • Drought
  • Drylands
  • Greenhouse
  • Prosopis velutina
  • Shrub seedlings
  • Woody plant encroachment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Soil Science
  • Plant Science

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