Seed and seedling traits have strong impacts on establishment of a perennial bunchgrass in invaded semi-arid systems.
Many restoration projects use seeds to found new populations, and understanding phenotypic traits associated with seedling establishment in disturbed and invaded communities is important for restoration efforts world-wide. Focusing on the perennial grass Elymus elymoides, a native species common to sagebrush steppe communities in the Western United States, we asked if seed and seedling traits could predict field establishment. We collected seeds from 34 populations from the western Great Basin. In greenhouse studies, we measured variation in seed and seedling characteristics of wild populations and one cultivar. We also quantified abiotic conditions at the collection location and asked if these characteristics predicted survival and other fitness metrics at five planting sites. Planting sites were all near-monocultures of the invasive annual grass Bromus tectorum, and all sites experienced similar, below-average precipitation during the experiment. Phenotypic traits were strongly correlated with performance across all sites, with remarkably high predictive power. Seeds from populations with longer roots, larger seeds and earlier emergence were significantly more likely to survive the first growing season (R2 = 0.66, p < 0.0001). In contrast, while some abiotic variables at the collection location (e.g. 30-year average summer precipitation and fall minimum temperatures) were associated with field performance at some sites, abiotic variables explained less variation in performance than traits (average R2 = 0.22). Despite the low predictive power of abiotic variables, populations that performed best at each field site were from locations with climate variables similar to planting sites. Synthesis and applications. The best seed sources for restoration of Elymus elymoides in invaded sites were populations with longer roots, larger seeds and earlier emergence. These easily measured traits were strong predictors of survival in disturbed field sites. While the most successful populations were found in areas with similar abiotic conditions as planting sites, there was phenotypic variation even among populations originating from locations with similar conditions. Thus, our results indicate that abiotic conditions are important considerations when selecting seeds, but these conditions may not sufficiently predict which populations will establish. Understanding population differences in seedling functional traits can improve predictions of restoration success.