Water and nutrients alter herbaceous competitive effects on tree seedlings in a semi-arid savanna

Cornelis Van Der Waal*, Hans De Kroon, Willem F. De Boer, Ignas M A Heitkönig, Andrew K. Skidmore, Henrik J. De Knegt, Frank Van Langevelde, Sipke E. Van Wieren, Rina C. Grant, Bruce R. Page, Rob Slotow, Edward M. Kohi, Emmanuel Mwakiwa, Herbert H T Prins

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Citations (Scopus)


1. Globally, both climatic patterns and nitrogen deposition rates show directional changes over time. It is uncertain how woody seedlings, which coexist with herbaceous plants in savannas, respond to concurrent changes in water and nutrient availability.

2. We investigated competition effects between herbaceous vegetation and tree seedlings (Colophospermum mopane) under changed water and nutrient (fertilized) conditions in a garden experiment situated in a semi-arid savanna.

3. Herbaceous competition significantly suppressed woody seedling growth. The effect of herbaceous competition on woody seedling growth remained constant with both increasing water and nutrient availability. However, during a wet-season drought, herbaceous competition apparently caused premature leaf senescence in non-irrigated treatments. Fertilization exacerbated negative competition effects during the drought, while irrigation prevented leaf loss of tree seedlings in spite of herbaceous competition and fertilization.

4. Based on a conceptual model, we propose that the vigorous response of herbaceous plants to increased nutrient availability leads to faster depletion of soil water, which increasingly causes water stress in woody seedlings if the interval between watering events is prolonged, e.g. during wet-season droughts.

5. Synthesis. Our data support the notion that changes in drought frequency are of greater importance to woody recruitment success than changes in annual rainfall amount. Based on the water and nutrient interactions observed in our experiment, we suggest that the effect of increased nitrogen deposition on woody seedling recruitment is contingent on water availability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)430-439
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • climate change
  • drought
  • herbaceous
  • nitrogen deposition
  • nutrients
  • semi-arid savanna
  • tree-grass competition
  • water
  • woody seedling


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