Biomechanical Plasticity Facilitates Invasion of Maritime Forests in the southern USA by Brazilian pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius)
Biomechanical plasticity and within-species growth form diversity are traits that can facilitate invasion by non-native plant species. We support this argument with evidence from the invasion of coastal habitats in northern Florida, USA, by Schinus terebinthifolius and describe some of the consequences of this invasion for overtopped saltmarsh plants. In crowded stands, Schinus grows more like a vine than a tree, with stem height : diameter ratios nearly twice than those observed in open-grown individuals but with no changes in wood density or the modulus of elasticity of stem material. When extracted from the surrounding vegetation, the formerly crowded Schinus stems buckle under their own weight. Schinus crowns also extend much further over adjacent saltmarsh than crowns of Juniperus virginiana, the only other tree species abundant in the study site. Along forest edges, the above-ground biomass of saltmarsh plants overtopped by Schinus crowns was reduced by more than an order of magnitude. The biomechanical plasticity of Schinus allows it to adapt its growth form to suit habitat conditions and can dominate the edges of salt marshes as a sprawling shrub and maritime forests as either a free-standing tree or a woody vine, depending on stand crowding.