• Abiotic constraints;
  • climatic oscillations;
  • drought tolerance;
  • habitat shift;
  • peripheral populations;
  • rear edge;
  • shade tolerance;
  • Tertiary relicts


Aim  To investigate the ecophysiological traits allowing persistence of a subtropical relict tree (Prunus lusitanica L.) under a dry Mediterranean climate at the eroding edge of its range.

Location  A glasshouse for the study under controlled conditions and two marginal populations located in riparian forests of central Spain and exposed to summer drought, in contrast to subtropical populations that grow in mountain cloud forests.

Methods  Two experiments were conducted to assess tolerance to the abiotic conditions found in riparian habitats. In a glasshouse experiment, gas-exchange and light-use parameters were measured to evaluate seedling responses to a factorial combination of irradiance (60%, 10%, 2% and 0.5% full sun) and moisture (well watered control and drought stress). In a parallel field experiment, irradiance and soil moisture were measured as predictors of seedling survival at two sites in which half the seedlings were subjected to a threefold increase in summer precipitation by adding water every 10 days.

Results  Soil moisture strongly determined survival both in the glasshouse and in the two field sites. In the field, periodic addition of water failed to increase survival. Water-use efficiency (WUE) increased with drought. Seedlings did not tolerate deep shade (2–0.5%) and their performance and survival were better when exposed to moderate (10%) or high (60%) irradiance. The effect of water stress on seedling performance was stronger at moderate irradiance, moderate at high irradiance and negligible at very low light. Seedling size (height and number of leaves) attained after 1 month of experimental treatments had a positive effect on survival at the end of the summer, hence greater survival was not achieved at the expense of vertical growth.

Main conclusions  While studies in Macaronesia have shown that P. lusitanica occupies a wide range of moisture conditions along mountain slopes, it behaves as an obligate riparian species in dry peripheral populations. Intolerance to deep shade and tolerance to moderate and high irradiance allow the species to grow in small and moist gaps, or in treeless river sections. Despite the species’ low range filling in marginal, drought-prone regions, long-term persistence might have been achieved through shifts to riparian habitats serving as local refuges.