Plant water-use strategies predict restoration success across degraded drylands.
Plant strategies for coping with water limitation are likely to mediate restoration outcomes in degraded dryland ecosystems. Trade-offs in traits related to water acquisition and use can intensify in more arid environments, making their effects on dryland restoration success even more salient. However, isolating the effects of drought responses from those of other environmental factors, as well as identifying the specific drought resistance traits that influence restoration success, can be difficult. In the present study, we couple a controlled dry-down experiment with a cross-site restoration field trial of out-planted seedlings (RestoreNet) using a suite of dryland herbaceous plant species from the same seed sources. We quantified interspecific variation in physiological responses to drought, specifically reductions in stomatal conductance (gs) and stem water potential (SWP), by comparing well-watered control plants to those experiencing decreasing soil moisture. Drought responses of SWP and gs varied independently among species, but both were related to survival in the cross-site restoration field trial when effect sizes were aggregated across all sites. Responses were consistent with acquisitive water-use strategies resulting in greater success, where species with greater declines in SWP or weaker declines in gs under drought had greater survival. The correlation between SWP drought response and survival also intensified in sites with lower accumulated precipitation following restoration. Differences among functional groups revealed two different paths to restoration success: forbs that maintain high gs and narrow safety margins to maximize exploitation of moisture pulses before going into drought dormancy, or C4 grasses that maintain efficient water uptake in drying soils while risking cavitation. C3 grass species varied between these two strategies. Synthesis and applications. Taken together, the results of this study and others conducted at RestoreNet sites indicate that while a diversity of physiological responses to drought may exist in dryland plant communities, successfully restoring herbaceous species through out-planting in degraded conditions is likely to be achieved with species that maximize water uptake via one of two strategies, with tolerance of low SWP being particularly important in the most arid settings.