Nutrients, competition and plant zonation in a New England salt marsh



1  We examined the effects of nutrient availability on the competitive interactions of the New England salt marsh perennials that occupy discrete vegetational zones parallel to the shoreline.

2  Fertilized and unfertilized plots of pair-wise mixtures and monocultures of Spartina alterniflora, S. patens and Juncus gerardi were compared in order to assess the effects of nutrient addition on the competitive dynamics of these species in the field. In addition, we examined competition between some of these species and Distichlis spicata, a species common to disturbed marsh habitats.

3  After two growing seasons, changes in above-ground biomass of the species indicated that in fertilized plots, S. alterniflora outcompeted S. patens, S. patens outcompeted J. gerardi, and D. spicata outcompeted both J. gerardi and S. patens. This was the reverse of the interactions seen under ambient marsh conditions, and suggested that, under conditions of nutrient limitation, competitive dominance may result from efficient competition for nutrients.

4  Using a conceptual model of salt marsh zonation as a function of competition, physical stress and nutrient limitation, we hypothesize that a nutrient-induced reversal in the competitive dynamics among salt marsh perennials may result in modification of the pattern of plant zonation in this and similar marshes.