1. Population dynamics often defy predictions based on empirical models, and explanations for noisy dynamics have ranged from deterministic chaos to environmental stochasticity. Transient (short-term) dynamics following disturbance or perturbation have recently gained empirical attention from researchers as further possible effectors of complicated dynamics.
2. Previously published methods of transient analysis have tended to require knowledge of initial population structure. However, this has been overcome by the recent development of the parametric Kreiss bound (which describes how large a population must become before reaching its maximum possible transient amplification following a disturbance) and the extension of this and other transient indices to simultaneously describe both amplified and attenuated transient dynamics.
3. We apply the Kreiss bound and other transient indices to a data base of matrix models from 108 plant species, in an attempt to detect ecological and mathematical patterns in the transient dynamical properties of plant populations.
4. We describe how life history influences the transient dynamics of plant populations: species at opposite ends of the scale of ecological succession have the highest potential for transient amplification and attenuation, whereas species with intermediate life history complexity have the lowest potential.
5. We find ecological relationships between transients and asymptotic dynamics: faster-growing populations tend to have greater potential magnitudes of transient amplification and attenuation, which could suggest that short- and long-term dynamics are similarly influenced by demographic parameters or vital rates.
6. We describe a strong dependence of transient amplification and attenuation on matrix dimension: perhaps signifying a potentially worrying artefact of basic model parameterization.
7.Synthesis. Transient indices describe how big or how small plant populations can get, en route to long-term stable rates of increase or decline. The patterns we found in the potential for transient dynamics, across many species of plants, suggest a combination of ecological and modelling strategy influences. This better understanding of transients should guide the formulation of management and conservation strategies for all plant populations that suffer disturbances away from stable equilibria.