Nitrogen Addition Could Shift Plant Community Composition in a Restored California Salt Marsh



At a salt marsh restoration site, fertilizer trials to improve height growth of Spartina foliosa (a C4 perennial grass that can reach 140 cm) appeared to favor Salicornia bigelovii (an annual C3 succulent under 40 cm tall) where the two species co-occurred on the marsh plain. This observation prompted a field experiment to examine the potential for nitrogen (N) addition to shift community composition. Without N addition, total stem length and stem density of S. foliosa did not respond to the presence or absence of S. bigelovii. But where N was added, S. foliosa growth increased only where S. bigelovii was removed from plots. S. bigelovii responded strongly to fertilizer, with mean heights matching those of S. foliosa and 600% increases in biomass, branching, and seed production (to more than 1 million seeds/m2). Soil N also increased seasonally where S. bigelovii was present, suggesting that this species may aid accumulation of N at restoration sites with poor soils. S. foliosa growth is greatest at lower elevations along tidal creeks where it occurs alone. Beyond creek edges, where S. bigelovii and other potential competitors occur, S. foliosa is unlikely to grow tall even with N addition. Thus, there is little point in trying to force mixed-species stands to provide tall S. foliosa for nesting by an endangered bird, Rallus longirostris levipes (the Light-footed Clapper Rail). A marsh construction design that maximizes tidal creek edges is thus recommended when restoration goals include providing habitat for clapper rails.