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Air humidity, soil moisture and soil chemistry as determinants of the herb layer composition in European beech forests


  • Co-ordinating Editor: P.S. White.

*Corresponding author; Fax +49 551 395701; E-mail


Question: What role does air humidity play as an environmental factor for the abundance and distribution of temperate woodland herbs?

Location: Beech forests on calcareous soils in southern lower Saxony, central Germany.

Methods: The abundance of woodland herb species and total herb cover were investigated in 60 plots with contrasting exposure, slope angle and relief type. On all plots, air humidity, air temperature, soil moisture, photosynthetically active radiation, pH (H2O) and concentration of salt-exchangeable Ca, Mg and K were measured. Species-environment relationships were analysed with multiple regression analysis and CCA.

Results: Air humidity (RH), soil moisture and the concentration of exchangeable Ca and K, but not light, C/N ratio and the concentration of exchangeable Mg were identified as the most important abiotic factors influencing the cover of the most abundant plant species and total herb cover. RH varied substantially across the different forest floor site types and influenced species abundance independent of soil moisture. In several species (including Mercurialis perennis and Impatiens noli-tangere), RH was found to be a key environmental factor. Other species such as Aegopodium podagraria and Lamiastrum galeobdolon depended more on elevated soil moisture, while RH was less important.

Conclusions: This study showed that the distribution of widespread temperate woodland herb species depends on high air humidity, and that certain sensitive species do not occur at sites with reduced air humidity even though soil moisture is high. Thus, high air humidity and ample soil moisture are key abiotic factors in beech forests on calcareous soils. Shade level (PAR) was found to be of secondary importance.