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Nitrogen Enhances the Competitive Ability of Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) Relative to Native Grasses

Vasquez, E., R. Sheley and T. Svejcar. 2008. Invasive Plant Science and Management 1: 287-295


Invasion by cheatgrass and the associated high fire frequency can displace native plant communities from a perennial to an annual grass driven system. Our overall objective of this study was to determine the potential to favor desired native perennial bunchgrasses over annual grasses by altering plant available mineral nitrogen (N). In the first study, we grew cheatgrass and three native bunch grasses (native grasses were combined in equal proportions) in an addition series experimental design and applied one of three N treatments (0, 137, and 280 mg N/kg soil). Regression models were used to derive the effects of intra- and interspecific competition on individual plant yield of cheatgrass and the native bunch grasses (combined). In our second study, we compared the absolute growth rate of the four plant species grown in isolation in a randomized complete block design for 109 days under the same soil N treatments as the competition study. Predicted mean average weight of isolated individuals increased with increasing soil N concentrations for both cheatgrass and the three native perennials (P < 0.05). Biomass of cheatgrass and its competitive ability increased with increasing soil N concentrations (P < 0.0001) compared to the combined native bunchgrasses. However, the greatest resource partitioning occurred at the 137 mg N/kg soil N treatment compared to the 0 (control) and 280 mg N/kg soil treatments, suggesting there may be a level of N that minimizes competition. In the second study, the absolute growth of cheatgrass grown in isolation also increased with increasing N levels (P = 0.0297). Results and ecological implications of this study suggest that increasing soil N leads to greater competitive ability of cheatgrass, and that it may be possible to favor desired plant communities by modifying soil nutrient levels.

Key Words

Invasive plants, plant available nitrogen, competition, interference, cheatgrass