1 Past land use can have long-term effects on plant species’ distributional patterns if alterations in resources and environmental conditions have persistent effects on population demography (environmental change) and/or if plants are intrinsically limited in their colonization ability (historical factors).
2 We evaluated the role of environmental alteration vs. historical factors in controlling distributional patterns of Gaultheria procumbens, a woody, clonal understorey species with a pronounced restriction to areas that have never been ploughed, and near absence from adjoining areas that were ploughed in the 19th century. The demographic study was conducted in scrub oak and hardwood plant communities on an extensive sand plain, where it was possible to control for the effect of variation in environment prior to land use.
3 The observed demographic effects were contrary to the hypothesis that persistent environmental alteration depressed demographic performance and limited the distribution of G. procumbens. We observed no overall effect of land-use history on stem density, stem recruitment or flower production. In fact, some aspects of performance were enhanced in previously ploughed areas. Populations in previously ploughed areas exhibited less stem mortality in scrub oak transitions, an increase in germination, seedling longevity and proportion of potentially reproductive stems in both plant communities, a trend for slower observed rates of population decline in both plant communities, and a higher projected rate of population growth in the scrub oak transitions. Thus, particularly in scrub oak communities, the lower abundance of G. procumbens in formerly ploughed than in unploughed areas contrasted with its performance.
4 The limited occurrence of G. procumbens in formerly farmed areas was explained instead by its slow intrinsic growth rate, coupled with limited seedling establishment. Lateral population extension occurred exclusively through vegetative growth, allowing a maximum expansion of 43 cm year−1.
5 We conclude that inherent limitations in the colonizing ability of some plant species may present a major obstacle in the restoration or recovery of plant communities on intensively disturbed sites, even in the absence of persistent environmental effects that depress population growth.