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The life history of Salicaceae living in the active zone of floodplains


P. J. Edwards Geobotanical Institute, ETH, Zürichbergstrasse 38, 8044 Zürich, Switzerland. E-mail:


1. Exposed riverine sediments are difficult substrata for seedling establishment because of extremes in the microclimate, poor soil conditions and frequent habitat turnover. Various species of willows and poplars (Salicaceae) appear to be particularly successful in colonising such sediments and are often dominant in floodplain habitats throughout the northern temperate zone.

2. In many Salicaceae regeneration seems to be adapted to regular disturbance by flooding. Efficient seed dispersal is achieved by the production of abundant seed in spring and early summer, which are dispersed by air and water. Seeds are short-lived and germinate immediately on moist surfaces. Seedling establishment is only possible if these surfaces stay moist and undisturbed for a sufficient period of time.

3. Larger plants of Salicaceae have exceptional mechanical properties, such as high bending stability, which enable them to withstand moderate floods. If uprooted, washed away or fragmented by more powerful floods these plants re-sprout vigorously.

4. While these life characteristics can be interpreted as adaptations to the floodplain environment, they may also cause a high genetic variability in populations of Salicaceae and predispose Salicaceae to hybridization. Thus, a feed back between adaptive life history characteristics and the evolutionary process is proposed.