Beneath it all: Size, not origin, predicts belowground competitive ability in exotic and native shrubs

Cara A. Faillace, Joshua S. Caplan, Jason C. Grabosky, Peter J. Morin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Traits associated with root morphology and nutrient uptake rate may contribute to the competitive ability of invasive species by determining their access to soil nutrients and their ability to extract those resources. Here, we tested the hypotheses that (a) exotic woody shrubs would be superior belowground competitors for nitrogen in heterogeneous soil resulting from key aspects of root architecture and (b) larger plants would be superior belowground competitors. We tested these hypotheses using two native shrubs, Rubus allegheniensis and Viburnum dentatum, and two invasive exotic shrubs, Rubus phoenicolasius and Berberis thunbergii, all four of which can become abundant in plant communities in the eastern United States. We grew replicate plants from each species with interspecific competitors, with intraspecific competitors, and individually in a randomized layout in a greenhouse in two temporal blocks. Each experimental container had a central soil patch amended with 15N-labeled litter. We measured above- and belowground growth, root morphology, and nitrogen uptake to assess the effects of intra- and interspecific competition on plant growth and nitrogen uptake. All species grew better in the second temporal block, but we did not detect any differences in the competitive ability or root traits for exotic versus native species; rather, plant size was the key trait that predicted competitive effects. Both Rubus species, which capitalized on the extended growing season offered by our greenhouse conditions, were stronger competitors and typically larger plants than B. thunbergii and V. dentatum. Both Rubus species exerted measurable competitive effects on other species, resulting in decreased aboveground size of competitors by 50% or more relative to control plants, but did not routinely decrease 15N uptake or root biomass of competitors. When competing with Rubus, leaf C:N ratios of all species except R. phoenicolasius were greater than when grown alone, suggesting that large Rubus plants did decrease the total nitrogen available to competitors. Our data suggest that belowground competitive ability in shrubs may be more closely associated with plant size and growth rate than plant origin. In addition, plant species that exhibit plastic growth phenology, such as those in the genus Rubus, may gain a competitive advantage during years with warmer autumn months by extending their growing seasons, facilitating their invasion and establishment in new habitats.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)30-40
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of the Torrey Botanical Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


  • belowground competition
  • biological invasions
  • exotic plants
  • invasive species
  • nitrogen
  • roots


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