Leaf traits and phylogeny explain plant survival and community dynamics in response to extreme drought in a restored coastal grassland.
Climate change will increase uncertainty in restoration outcomes due to greater water stress and other abiotic filters that limit plant survival. Drought-related plant functional traits can help species withstand filters in a semi-arid environment. Our objective was to provide guidance for selecting species to improve restoration success in a changing climate. We planted 12 native species in ambient rainfall and under 60% rain-out shelters in an invaded coastal grassland in central California. We measured survival and size annually for 4 years and quantified plant community and trait composition in the third and fourth years. We measured growth rate, specific leaf area (SLA), leaf C:N, leaf lobedness and leaf δ13C of all planted species and dominant extant species, and evaluated the effect of treatments, traits and phylogenetics on mortality risk using Cox proportional hazards. Native perennial species cover was greater, whereas thatch depth and per cent cover of shrubs and non-native annual grasses were lower, on drought plots. Drought plots had lower community-weighted leaf C:N and higher leaf lobedness. Planted species with resource conservative traits, such as higher leaf lobedness and lower growth rate, had lower mortality risk. Increased plasticity of morphological traits (SLA and lobedness) was associated with decreased mortality risk, whereas increased plasticity of physiological traits (leaf C:N and δ13C) and risk was positively correlated. Trait plasticity explained a greater degree of plant mortality risk compared to absolute trait values. Plants that were more phylogenetically related to the surrounding plant community had lower mortality risk. Traits of planted species that were important for determining plant mortality in this coastal grassland may be conserved, which was supported by a phylogenetic signal (Blomberg's K = 0.380, Pagel's λ = 0.830) in leaf C:N.