- 1Former human practices can persistently influence forest ecosystems, particularly by altering the distribution and abundance of vegetation. Previous research has focused on the role of colonization success in governing plant community patterns in abandoned forests, but few studies have explored how changes in the performance of adult plants may contribute to changes in plant populations.
- 2We examined patterns of biomass allocation and growth of 12 herbaceous plant species in southern Appalachian forest stands that have developed after agricultural abandonment or logging at least 55 years ago, to determine whether plant performance varied with land-use history. Soil nutrient availability and canopy closure were also investigated.
- 3Adult plant biomass allocation varied appreciably among stands with different histories. Herbs in farmed stands generally allocated the most to leaves and the least to stems, while reference stands showed the opposite pattern. Plants in previously farmed sites had the highest rate of growth, although we observed considerable interspecific variation in plant performance. Stem allocation and relative growth rate were positively correlated in reference stands, but not in farmed or logged stands. Similarly, the growth of plants was clearly associated with soil nutrient concentration in reference stands but not in farmed or logged stands.
- 4Differences in understorey density and soil nutrient availability may account for the observed patterns. Total herbaceous cover was appreciably lower in farmed and logged stands (58% and 51%) than in reference stands (78%), and soil phosphorus was higher in farmed stands than in logged and reference stands. Thus, competition for light and nutrients may be lower in farmed and logged stands than in reference stands, despite there being no difference in canopy closure with land-use history.
- 5Overall, these results suggest that land-use history may influence environmental variables in ways that can enhance the performance of some herbaceous species. However, not all species may respond similarly to these changes.