Agricultural land-use history does not reduce woodland understory herb establishment

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Agricultural land use is a leading cause of habitat degradation, leaving a legacy of ecological impacts long after agriculture has ceased. Yet the mechanisms for legacy effects, such as altered plant community composition, are not well understood. In particular, whether plant community recovery is limited by an inability of populations to establish within post-agricultural areas, owing to altered environmental conditions within these areas, remains poorly known. We evaluated this hypothesis of post-agricultural establishment limitation through a field experiment within longleaf pine woodlands in South Carolina (USA) and a greenhouse experiment using field-collected soils from these sites. In the field, we sowed seeds of 12 understory plant species associated with remnants (no known history of agriculture) into 27 paired remnant and post-agricultural woodlands. We found that post-agricultural woodlands supported higher establishment, resulting in greater species richness of sown species. These results were context dependent, however, with higher establishment in post-agricultural woodlands only when sites were frequently burned, had less leaf litter, or had less sandy soils. In the greenhouse, we found that agricultural history had no impact on plant growth or survival, suggesting that establishment limitation is unlikely driven by differences in soils associated with agricultural history when environmental conditions are not stressful. Rather, the potential for establishment in post-agricultural habitats can be higher than in remnant habitats, with the strength of this effect determined by fire frequency and soil characteristics.

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