Population structure and establishment of the threatened long-lived perennial Scorzonera humilis in relation to environment.
The intensification of agriculture has resulted in the decline of many plant species of nutrient-poor wet grasslands. At some sites local populations of long-lived characteristic species have persisted and might benefit from recent extensification schemes. However, little is known about the population biology of these plants, and the prospects for the populations are uncertain. We studied the population structure and establishment of the long-lived Scorzonera humilis in 23 populations in Luxembourg and neighbouring Belgium. Two types of populations could be distinguished according to their population structure: regenerating populations, with a high proportion of plants with only one or a few rosettes, and aged populations, with a low proportion of small, young plants but a high proportion of individuals with many rosettes. The total density of Scorzonera individuals was higher in regenerating than in aged populations. Within sites, S. humilis was restricted to more open and nutrient-poor patches. The composition of the vegetation in plots where S. humilis was present was significantly different from that of plots without the species, indicating that S. humilis is restricted to particular microhabitats. In multiple regression analyses, environmental variables explained a large part of the variation in the total density of genets, the density of genets of different size and the density of rosettes. The main variables of influence were site productivity and soil moisture. With increasing productivity and decreasing soil moisture the proportion of small genets decreased and that of large genets increased. Increased productivity had contrasting effects at the genet and ramet (rosette) levels. While genet density decreased, ramet density increased, indicating that if a site is fertilized, recruitment of new genets and survival of genets is reduced, but growth of surviving genets is increased. The results of a sowing experiment indicated that an aged population structure was due to a lack of recruitment. The number of seeds that germinated and the proportion of seedlings that survived until the next summer were positively correlated with soil moisture and negatively with productivity. Germination rate and establishment success were significantly higher in Molinion grassland than in the Calthion grasslands. The results suggest that for long-lived species the size and number of populations may not be good indicators of the status of a species. In S. humilis large populations (>1000 genets) still exist, but all are of the aged type. In order to preserve existing populations of S. humilis, management should aim to reduce productivity and increase soil moisture.