Nutrient Limitation in a Fire-derived, Nitrogen-rich Hawaiian Grassland1


  • 1

    Received 20 February 2005; revision accepted 2 October 2005.

2   Corresponding author; e-mail:


Grasslands created by grass invasions into shrublands or woodlands followed by fire are now a dominant feature of many seasonally dry environments. In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, introduced perennial grasses dominate grasslands created by fire in grass-invaded woodlands. In a previous study, we found that net primary production in these grasslands is substantially lower than in unburned woodlands. Yet, our estimates of annual net nitrogen (N) mineralization showed higher rates in these savannas than in the unburned woodlands, rates that appear to greatly exceed annual N demand by the vegetation. We therefore hypothesized that N should not be limited to the plants growing in these sites. We tested this hypothesis with a 2-yr fertilization experiment. At peak biomass, we found a 30 percent increase in live biomass in plots with N added and no increase in production with only phosphorus (P) added. N and P together were synergistic, suggesting that co-limitation or P limitation becomes important when N is more available. Plants responded to added N by increasing individual leaf area and shoot length by over 50 percent. Tissue N was higher with added N; hence, biomass N was substantially higher. Tissue P concentrations declined with N addition but were elevated by P addition despite lack of a growth response to P alone. Overall, N limitation exists despite high annual rates of net N mineralization, and co-limitation of production by P may occur when N is abundant. Here, asynchrony between plant nutrient demand and N availability may contribute to N limitation.