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Use of Shrubs as Nurse Plants: A New Technique for Reforestation in Mediterranean Mountains

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Abstract

Common techniques currently used for afforestation in the Mediterranean basin consider the pre-existing vegetation (mainly shrubs) as a source of competition for trees, and consequently it is generally eliminated before planting. Nevertheless, it has been demonstrated that woody plants can facilitate the establishment of understory seedlings in environments that, like the Mediterranean area, are characterized by a pronounced dry season. In this study, we experimentally analyze the usefulness of shrubs as nurse plants for afforestation of two native conifers, Pinus sylvestris L. (Scots pine) and Pinus nigra Arnold (black pine). Two-year-old seedlings were planted in four microhabitats: (1) open interspaces without vegetation (which is the usual method used in afforestation programs), (2) under individuals of Salvia lavandulifolia, (3) under the north side of spiny shrubs, and (4) under the south side of spiny shrubs. Pine survival was remarkably higher when planted under individuals of the shrub S. lavandulifolia (54.8% for Scots pine, 81.9% for black pine) compared with open areas (21.5% for Scots pine, 56.8% for black pine; chi square, p < 0.05). The survival of both pines was also higher when planted on the north side of spiny shrubs, although the survival on the south side was similar to that found in open areas. In addition, pine growth was not inhibited when planted in association with shrubs. This pattern appears to result from the combination of abiotic conditions imposed by the presence of a nurse shrub, which leads to improvement in seedling water status and therefore reduced summer mortality by drought. The results show that the use of shrubs as nurse plants is a technique that offers both economic and ecological advantages, in terms of savings in labor and plant material and reduced and even negligible impact on the pre-existing vegetation.

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