Resource-island soils formed by some plants in arid lands are capable of supporting certain plants that do not normally establish in surrounding areas free of vegetation. We determined growth responses of Pachycereus pringlei (cardon), the giant columnar cactus, whose widespread, finely branched, subsurface root systems stabilize desert soils, to four soils collected from within or outside of resource islands. Traits of cardon grown in soils from mature (MM) or young (YM) Prosopis articulata (mesquite), mature Olnea testosa (ironwood, MI), or bare areas (BA) were compared, to determine differences between the effects of soils due to the identity or the stage of development of nurse plants. The levels of soil N, P, and C contents were in the order MM> > YM > MI BA. The BA soil had the coarsest and MM soil the finest texture. Cardon was also grown in pot cultures inoculated with the plant-growth-promoting bacterium Azospirillum brasilense, or in association with a competing grass, Sorghum bicolor (sorghum). Competition did not affect survival rates of cardon in any of the soils after six months of growth, but decreased biomass accumulation by up to 90% in the best (MM) soil. Inoculation of cardon seeds with A. brasilense did not affect survival but resulted in significantly better root and shoot growth, and this effect increased linearly as soil nutrients declined. In the best soil (MM), A. brasilense had no effect on cardon growth, but in the poorest soil (BA) shoot dry mass was almost 60% and root length over 100% greater as a result of inoculation, with responses in the other two soils intermediate. This effect did not appear to be owing to N2 fixation, as nitrogenase activity (acetylene reduction) was not detected in any of the treatments. Soil formation by selected nurse trees in arid areas is an important factor in plant establishment and growth, and the present results indicate that these processes can be impeded or facilitated by the introduction of competing or beneficial organisms. The use of beneficial microorganisms associated with roots may accelerate the restoration of disturbed areas.
Key words: Azospirillum, desert soils, nitrogen fixation, nurse plant, Pachycereus pringlei, plant survival, resource-island.