Questions: What is the effect of herbaceous layer on seedling establishment of three woody pioneer species in open areas of central Chile under a semi-arid mediterranean climate? How do inter-annual and habitat conditions (slope aspect) modulate this effect? Under high stress conditions such as the drier year and habitat (north-facing slope) do herbs reach low abundance and have neutral effects on woody seedlings? Under medium stress conditions for these woody species, such as the wetter year and south-facing slope, does the herbaceous layer reach greater abundance and have positive effects on woody seedlings due to increasing soil water content?
Location: A watershed on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile, subjected to clearing of woody vegetation through firewood extraction and human-set fires.
Methods: In spring 2007, we set up 20 plots (3 m × 2 m). Half of each plot had herbs removed manually and by application of herbicide. In both halves of each plot, one seedling (8 months old) of each of the three native woody species (Colliguaya odorifera, Schinus polygamus and Quillaja saponaria) was planted and survival monitored subsequently. The experiment was repeated in two consecutive growing seasons (2007–2008 and 2008–2009) that differed significantly in total precipitation (152 and 256.5 mm, respectively), and replicated in two sites that differed in aspect and abiotic conditions: a moister south- and a drier north-facing slope.
Results: In the first and drier year, the herbaceous layer had low cover and no significant effect on seedling survival of woody species. During the second year, herbs had greater cover and a significant positive effect on spring survival of C. odorifera in the north-facing slope, which was lost after summer. During this wetter year on the south-facing slope, herb cover had a positive effect on survival of S. polygamus (mainly during summer).
Conclusions: The role of mostly ruderal herbs on woody seedling establishment depended on the species, rainfall of the current year and slope aspect, and may be explained by soil moisture patterns. This suggests that the effect of ruderal herbs on woody seedlings shifts from neutral under high stress conditions produced by drought to positive under moderate stress conditions. Our results contribute to understand interactions between ruderal herbs and woody species under contrasting abiotic conditions. Therefore, control of the herbaceous layer may not be needed in restoration programmes for this region. Moreover, herbs may benefit restoration of woody cover in mesic habitats.