Functional role of the herbaceous layer in eastern deciduous forest
The importance of the herbaceous layer in regulating ecosystem processes in deciduous forests is generally unknown. We use a manipulative study in a rich, mesophytic cove forest in the southern Appalachians to test the following hypotheses: (i) the herbaceous functional group (HFG) in mesophytic coves accelerates carbon and nutrient cycling, (ii) high litter quality input and rapid nutrient turnover associated with HFG will have a positive effect on overstory tree growth, and (iii) the HFG regulates tree regeneration with negative effects on seedling establishment due to competition for resources. We established treatment plots in a mesic, cove-hardwoods forest and removed the herbaceous flora (HR, removed twice per year) or added herbaceous organic material (OMA, once per year) for comparison to a no removal (NR) reference for a total of 14 years. The OMA treatment stimulated soil N-mineralization and increased litterfall mass and N content. OMA N-mineralization rates were more than two times greater than both the NR and HR treatments; however, we did not detect significant differences in soil CO2 efflux among treatments. Higher overstory litterfall mass and N in the OMA treatment plots indicated that overstory trees were benefiting from the enhanced soil N-mineralization. Higher overstory leaf mass and N suggests an important linkage between HR and aboveground net primary production even though this did not translate into greater tree basal area increment. We found an increase in regeneration of all tree species with HFG removal, and the response was particularly evident for Acer rubrum seedlings.