• alpine;
  • antagonistic interactions;
  • bidirectional;
  • competition;
  • functional traits;
  • physiological traits;
  • reproduction;
  • resource allocation pattern


  1. Facilitation is known as the positive effect of one species (benefactor) on associated neighbouring species (beneficiaries). Although the beneficial part of this interaction has received considerable research interest, there is a gap of knowledge on the bidirectional nature of these interactions; in particular, the physiological and fitness consequences for both beneficiaries and benefactors.
  2. Alpine cushion plants are generally strong benefactors, increasing species richness and abundance on a global scale, and provide a suitable system to study the physiological effects of bidirectional interactions and its consequences for reproduction. Current knowledge suggests that species improve their fitness when associated to a benefactor cushion species, whereas cushions may receive predominantly negative feedbacks.
  3. We measured physiological and reproductive traits of the cushion species Arenaria tetraquetra ssp. amabilis and three other forbs (Eryngium glaciale, Lotus corniculatus ssp. glacialis and Plantago nivalis) in the dry Sierra Nevada Mountains, southern Spain. All four species were studied either when growing alone or when the three forbs were associated with the cushion plant.
  4. The three forb species improved their water status when associated with the cushion, and Lotus and Plantago significantly increased their seed set. In contrast, Arenaria showed poorer water status and reduced flower density and seed set with increasing cover of beneficiary species. There was a clear relationship between physiological and reproductive traits in Arenaria growing without beneficiaries but not in Arenaria with beneficiaries. Control cushions (without beneficiary species) showed increased seed set and seed mass with increasing photosynthetic and water use efficiencies, respectively, the latter being positively related to leaf nitrogen content. In contrast, cushions with a large cover of beneficiary species did not show such relations. The missing relationship between physiological and reproductive traits for these facilitating cushions indicates that reproductive output in heavily colonized cushions may not be directly related to the plant physiological status and the availability of resources.
  5. Our results revealed the antagonistic behaviour underlying the interaction between beneficiary species and facilitating cushion plants, similar to parasitic interactions. They also provide indications for changes in cushions' resource allocation pattern in response to colonization by beneficiaries.