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Keywords:

  • Acer rubrum;
  • Acer saccharum;
  • activated carbon;
  • Ailanthus altissima;
  • allelopathy;
  • field experiment;
  • invasive species;
  • neighbourhood models;
  • plant interactions;
  • Quercus rubra;
  • seedling performance

Summary

  • 1
    Allelopathic interactions between invasive and native species have been suggested to be an important mechanism for the success of some of the most aggressive plant invaders. However, field experiments that test the effects of natural levels of allelopathic compounds on coexisting native species are exceptionally rare.
  • 2
    In this study, we analyzed the allelopathic effects of the invasive tree Ailanthus altissima on seedling emergence, survival and growth of three native tree species (Acer rubrum, A. saccharum and Quercus rubra) in temperate forests of the northeastern United States. We used activated carbon (AC) to reduce potential allelopathic interference, and developed neighbourhood models that explain the observed spatial variation in the effects of the AC treatments on seedling performance as a function of the size, abundance and distribution of Ailanthus trees in the neighbourhood.
  • 3
    Our results showed that the addition of AC to the soil did not affect seedling emergence or survival, but caused a significant increase in seedling growth of all three species. Moreover, the AC shifted the overall interaction between Ailanthus and maple seedlings from neutral or slightly positive to very positive for A. rubrum, and from negative to positive for A. saccharum, whereas the net interaction between Ailanthus and Q. rubra was always negative. As Ailanthus has the ability to increase soil fertility, these species-specific responses are presumably influenced by among-species differences in the net effects of both allelopathy and changes in resource availability caused by the presence of Ailanthus.
  • 4
    The cumulative allelopathic effects of Ailanthus were proportional to the density of Ailanthus in the neighbourhood, regardless of their size. In contrast, Ailanthus effects were strongly influenced by distance from a tree, generally dropping to zero within 5 m from the trunk.
  • 5
    Synthesis. Taken together, our results indicate that allelopathy is an important mechanism to take into account when trying to understand the causes and consequences of plant invasions. However, this study also strongly suggests that the real significance of the allelopathic effects of an invasive species cannot be assessed independently of its target community, or in isolation of other resource interactions involving the invader and the native community.