Soil seed banks and the potential restoration of forested wetlands after farming


B Middleton

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Journal of Applied Ecology


Summary 1. Changes in farming practice provide an opportunity to restore once extensive forested wetlands on agricultural land. In some parts of the world, however, it has proved difficult to restore the full complement of plant species through natural regeneration. Similarly, the restoration of forested wetlands by replanting has often resulted in ecosystems of low diversity. Better methods of restoring these important ecosystems are now required and baldcypress swamps provide an opportunity to investigate alternative approaches to the restoration of forested wetlands. This study examined the composition of seed banks of farmed fields to determine their value in restoring swamps in the south-eastern United States. 2. A seed bank assay of soils from baldcypress swamps was conducted to determine the extent to which seeds are maintained during farming for various lengths of time. Soils from swamps that were farmed for 0-50 years were collected near the northern boundary of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley along the Cache River, Illinois. Soils were placed in a glasshouse setting in flooded and freely drained conditions, and the numbers and species of seeds germinating were recorded. 3. Woody species including trees, shrubs, and vines were poorly represented in seed banks of both farmed and intact sites (51 and 9 sites, respectively). Missing dominants in the seed banks included tree species with short-lived seeds such as Taxodium distichum and Nyssa aquatica. Cephalanthus occidentalis constituted the most abundantly dispersed seed of all woody species. 4. Herbaceous species were well represented in the seed banks of both farmed and intact swamps (species richness of 207 vs. 173 species, respectively) suggesting that herbaceous species may live longer than woody species in seed banks. Few of the herbaceous species decreased in seed density in seed banks with time under cultivation, although seed density was lower at sites that had not been farmed. Species that relied on vegetative organs for dispersal were absent in the seed banks of farmed sites including Heteranthera dubia, Hottonia inflata, Lemna minor, Lemna trisulca and Wolffia columbiana. These species may require active reintroduction during restoration. 5. Synthesis and applications. Both restoration ecologists and managers of nature conservation areas need to be cognisant of seed bank and dispersal characteristics of species to effectively restore and manage forested wetlands. In the case of baldcypress swamps, critical components of the vegetation are not maintained in seed banks, which may make these floodplain wetlands difficult to restore via natural recolonization. Ultimately, the successful restoration of abandoned farm fields to forested wetlands may depend on the re-engineering of flood pulsing across landscapes to reconnect dispersal pathways.