1. The way light stress controls the recruitment of aquatic plants (phanerogams and charophytes) is a key process controlling plant biodiversity, although still poorly understood. Our aim was to investigate how light stress induced by phytoplankton, that is, independent from the aquatic plants themselves, determines the recruitment and establishment of plant species from the propagule bank. The hypotheses were that an increase in light stress (i) decreases abundance and species richness both of established aquatic plants and of propagules in the bank and (ii) decreases the recruitment success of plants from this bank.
2. These hypotheses were tested in 25 shallow lakes representing a light stress gradient, by sampling propagule banks before the recruitment phase and when the lakes are devoid of actively growing plants (i.e. at the end of winter), established vegetation at the beginning of the summer and phytoplankton biomass (chlorophyll a) during the recruitment and establishment phase.
3. The phytoplankton biomass was negatively correlated with the richness and abundance of established vegetation but was not correlated with the propagule bank (neither species richness nor propagule abundance). The similarity between the propagule bank and established vegetation decreased significantly with increasing phytoplankton biomass.
4. The contrast in species composition between the vegetation and the propagule bank at the highest light stress suggests poor recruitment from the propagule bank but prompts questions about its origin. It could result from dispersal of propagules from neighbouring systems. Propagules could also originate from a persistent propagule bank formerly produced in the lake, suggesting strong year-to-year variation in light stress and, as a consequence, in recruitment and reproductive success of plants.