Role of Legumes in Release of Successionally Arrested Grasslands in the Central Hills of Sri Lanka


3P. Mark S. Ashton, Marsh Hall, 360 Prospect Street, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06511, U.S.A.


Most of the world's forest has been cleared, cultivated, and then often abandoned. In many instances these areas have changed to successionally arrested grasslands, shrublands, or fernlands maintained by frequent fires and high herbivore populations. Many studies have shown that various herbaceous, nitrogen-fixing legumes can protect soil surfaces, retain soil moisture, improve soil fertility, and retard ground fires. Our objective was to ascertain if some of these species can potentially inhibit herbivory and satisfactorily establish in these arrested grassland areas to serve as sites for reforestation. We evaluated the potential for four species of nitrogen-fixing legumes (Calapogonium mucunoides, Centrosema pubescens, Desmodium ovalifolium, and Pueraria phaseoloides) to establish on exposed soil within successionally arrested grasslands of Panicum maximum and Cymbopogon nardus in the central hills of Sri Lanka. Four different sites within rectangular grassland areas were cleared of graminoids and sown with seed of each legume. Half of each clearing was protected from browsing rabbits and porcupines, and half was not protected. After 6 months, certain plots were destructively sampled to determine dry biomass gain for each species and treatment. Analyses of variance were performed to test for differences among sites, treatments, and species. All three factors revealed differences, indicating that species must be matched to site. On sites with high amounts of herbivory, D. ovalifolium had the greatest dry biomass gain after 6 months of growth, possibly because of its relatively low nitrogen and moisture content. Where herbivory was absent, P. phaseoloides and C. muconoides had the greatest dry biomass gain. Dry biomass gain of all four legume ground covers was low on sites with lowest pH and nutrient concentrations. Under conditions of low relative fertility and low pH, establishment of the tested legumes failed. Though soil moisture availability was not measured, we speculate that these low fertility sites were also prone to drought. Findings support the site-specific establishment of legume species for purposes of reforestation and watershed protection in central Sri Lanka. This work is applicable to other regions particularly dominated by successionally arrested grasslands with similar circumstances in other parts of south and southeast Asia.