Ecology Letters (2010) 13: 1182–1197
Explaining variation in population growth rates is fundamental to predicting population dynamics and population responses to environmental change. In this study, we used matrix population models, which link birth, growth and survival to population growth rate, to examine how and why population growth rates vary within and among 50 terrestrial plant species. Population growth rates were more similar within species than among species; with phylogeny having a minimal influence on among-species variation. Most population growth rates decreased over the observation period and were negatively autocorrelated between years; that is, higher than average population growth rates tended to be followed by lower than average population growth rates. Population growth rates varied more through time than space; this temporal variation was due mostly to variation in post-seedling survival and for a subset of species was partly explained by response to environmental factors, such as fire and herbivory. Stochastic population growth rates departed from mean matrix population growth rate for temporally autocorrelated environments. Our findings indicate that demographic data and models of closely related plant species cannot necessarily be used to make recommendations for conservation or control, and that post-seedling survival and the sequence of environmental conditions are critical for determining plant population growth rate.