Acorn viability following prescribed fire in upland hardwood forests
Restoration of structure and function of mixed-oak (Quercus spp.) forests is a focal issue of forest land managers in the eastern United States due to widespread regeneration failure and poor overstory recruitment of oaks, particularly on productive sites. Prescribed fire is increasingly used as a tool in oak ecosystem restoration, with the goal of reducing competition, and creating light and seedbed conditions conducive to germination and growth of oak seedlings. Yet, oak seedling establishment is dependent on the presence of viable acorns, which may be vulnerable to prescribed fire. We assessed the effect of prescribed burning and fire temperature on the viability of white oak and northern red oak acorns placed on the leaf litter surface, in the duff, or in the mineral soil during five winter prescribed burns in southern Appalachian upland hardwood forests. Fire temperatures varied among acorn plots, ranging from <79 to <371 C. After the burns, acorns were planted in trays with water-saturated vermiculite, exposed to 14 continuous hours of light daily, and maintained at 27 C on germination beds in a greenhouse. After three weeks we recorded the proportion of acorns germinating and the proportion of germinants with shoots. Our study indicated that patchy, low-intensity dormant season prescribed fire in upland hardwood forests reduced viability of white oak and northern red oak acorns located on the leaf litter surface, but did not generally affect acorns in the duff or mineral soil. Germination rates of both northern red oak and white oak acorns on the leaf litter surface decreased with increasing fire temperature. Shoot production by northern red oak germinants from acorns on the leaf litter surface (and less so in the duff), also decreased with increasing fire temperature. Acorns of both species on the leaf litter surface burned at temperatures P204 C showed high mortality levels, with mortality virtually 100% at temperatures P260 C. Fall burns, especially after a heavy acorn crop, could result in high acorn mortality, potentially impacting oak regeneration from seedlings for many years given erratic acorn production patterns among years and species. Frequent burning that reduces litter and duff depth could compromise availability of ‘safe sites’ where acorns are insulated from high fire temperatures. When oak ecosystem restoration is a goal, land managers should consider the timing and size of acorn crops, as well as the forest floor condition when determining the timing and frequency of prescribed burning.