Rhododendron maximum impacts seed bank composition and richness following Tsuga canadensis loss in riparian forests
Southern Appalachian riparian forests have undergone changes in composition and function from invasive pathogens and pests. Castanea dentata mortality in the 1930s from chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) and Tsuga canadensis mortality in the 2000s from the hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae) have led to the expansion and increased growth of Rhododendron maximum, an evergreen subcanopy shrub. A better understanding of seed bank characteristics and the various abiotic and biotic factors that affect the seed bank may be useful in determining the restoration potential of forest communities following invasion‐related disturbances. We compared the seed bank of two deciduous forest types: hardwood forests with a dense R. maximum subcanopy (hereafter, RR) and hardwood forests without R. maximum (hereafter, HWD). We evaluated numerous microenvironmental variables through principal component analysis (PCA) and correlated the derived PCA axes scores to seed bank density and richness across forest types. We found that seed bank density was comparable between the forests types; however, seed bank richness was much lower in RR than HWD and the species composition was dissimilar between forest types. Twenty‐eight of 64 (44%) species in the seed bank of HWD were not found in the seed bank of RR. Species that were represented in both forest types were often found in contrasting densities. Most notably, seed bank densities of several woody species were considerably higher in RR (85%) than HWD (45%), while herbaceous seed bank density was lower in RR (11%) than HWD (50%). Mineral soil pH, soil nutrient availability, and soil moisture were lower, and organic soil (Oi + Oe + Oa) depth and mass were greater in the RR than HWD forest type. PCA correlations revealed that PCA4 (represented by understory density and Oe + Oa phosphorus and carbon/nitrogen ratio) was negatively correlated with total seed bank density. PCA1 (represented by Oe + Oa cations and phosphorus, understory richness, ground‐layer cover, and mineral soil pH) and PCA4 were positively correlated with total seed bank richness. These results suggest that the soil seed bank will not be the primary mode of recruitment to establish a diverse and herbaceous‐rich community if a RR is present.