Aims: The stress-gradient hypothesis (SGH) predicts how plant interactions change along environmental stress gradients. We tested the SGH in an aridity gradient, where support for the hypothesis and the specific shape of its response curve is controversial.
Location: Almería, Cáceres and Coimbra, three sites in the Iberian Peninsula that encompass the most arid and wet habitats in the distribution range of a nurse shrub species –Retama sphaerocarpa L. (Boiss) – in Europe.
Methods: We analysed the effect of Retama on its understorey plant community and measured the biomass and species richness beneath Retama and in gaps. We estimated the frequency (changes in species richness), importance and intensity of the Retama effects, and derived the severity–interaction relationship pattern, analysing how these interaction indices changed along this aridity gradient.
Results and conclusions: The intensity and frequency of facilitation by Retama increased monotonically with increasing environmental severity, and the importance tended to have a similar pattern, overall supporting the SGH. Our data did not support predictions from recent revisions of the SGH, which may not apply to whole plant communities like those studied here or when interactions are highly asymmetrical. Facilitation by Retama influenced community composition and species richness to the point that a significant fraction of species found at the most arid end of the gradient were only able to survive beneath the nurse shrub, whereas some of these species were able to thrive in gaps at more mesic sites, highlighting the ecological relevance of facilitation by nurse species in mediterranean environments, especially in the driest sites.