Main content area

Competition for water in a xeric forest ecosystem – Effects of understory removal on soil micro-climate, growth and physiology of dominant Scots pine trees

Giuggiola, Arnaud, Zweifel, Roman, Feichtinger, Linda M., Vollenweider, Pierre, Bugmann, Harald, Haeni, Matthias, Rigling, Andreas
Forest ecology and management 2018 v.409 pp. 241-249
Pinus sylvestris, agroforestry, dry environmental conditions, forest ecosystems, forest management, forests, grazing, harvesting, land use change, microclimate, mortality, overstory, risk, sap, shoots, soil depth, soil temperature, soil water, soil water content, stand density, tree growth, trees, understory, ungulates, vigor, water content, Switzerland
In many Central European areas, forests have been altered by century-long management practices, including grazing with domestic ungulates and litter harvesting. During the last century, most of these agro-forestry practices have been abandoned in many regions of Switzerland. As a consequence, stand density has increased, leading to higher competition for resources among trees, and particularly between overstory trees and understory vegetation. Only few studies investigated the effects of understory on the growth and physiology of overstory trees.We conducted an understory removal experiment at a xeric Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.) forest in an inner-Alpine valley of Switzerland over a period of 5 years and compared data of soil temperature and water content, needle and shoot length, and radial growth and sap flow.The removal of the understory increased soil temperature as well as soil water content at 5 to 60 cm soil depth, and led to a 4.6-fold higher mean annual radial growth and significantly longer needles and shoots. The removal of the understory further decreased tree water deficit and increased sap flow.We conclude that reduced competition for soil water after removal of the understory vegetation was the primary cause of the increased performance of the overstory trees since light was not a limiting factor already before the understory removal. Thus, increases in understory density due to altered forest management may have exacerbated observed drought-induced decline processes. Therefore, our study demonstrates the need for a careful disentangling of climate and land-use change processes as they may evolve in parallel and potentially intensify their impact on the ecosystems. In contrast, the findings suggest decreasing understory density as a suitable management practice to increase overstory tree growth and vigour, and hence reduce mortality risk for a species like Scots pine in a drought-prone environment.