Do early-successionalweeds facilitate or compete with seedlings in forest restoration? Disentangling abiotic versus biotic factors.
Semi-arid forests need cost-effective restoration strategies to address their severe degradation. Tree shelters are often used to minimize abiotic and biotic stress during seedling establishment. We asked if early-successional weeds act as a natural shelter by facilitating native seedlings, contingent on abiotic and biotic stressors and seedling ecological strategy. We conducted a manipulative weed exclusion experiment at a semi-arid site in South Texas targeted for large-scale forest restoration to discern the net effect of weeds on the growth and survival of target thornscrub tree and shrub seedlings.We assessed the roles of contrasting seedling ecological strategies (fast vs. slow growth habit), temporal variation in abiotic stress, microclimate and mammalian herbivory in modulating weed-seedling interactions. Ungulate herbivory on seedlings was common, of similar frequency across most species, but not diminished by the presence of weed neighbours. On average, seedlings growing adjacent to weed neighbours experienced modest but nonsignificant increases in both height and mortality after 6 months, relative to weedexcluded areas. However, seedlings without significant herbivory and adjacent to weed neighbours grew more vigorously (increased height and branching) during hot and dry periods, particularly those species with a fast growth habit. Although seedling light-saturated photosynthetic capacity (Asat) and air temperature were unaffected by weed presence during hot and dry periods, afternoon light levels were reduced by approximately 50%, possibly indicative of lower leaf temperatures and improved seedling water status. Our results show that realizing the facilitative potential of weeds in semi-arid forest restoration requires minimizing mammalian herbivory and temporally separating competition for resources. Managing for intermediate but not excessive levels of forb canopy cover is likely required to reduce high radiation loads and reduce transpiration without adverse competitive effects. Longer-term experiments manipulating cover crop identity, cover and mammalian herbivory will inform whether forbs can be effectively exploited to enhance restoration success at large scales.