Comparative growth and physiological performance of American Chestnuts, Oaks, Hickories, and sugar maple across a silvicultural gradient in overstory retention

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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


The development of a blight-tolerant transgenic American chestnut (Castanea dentata (Marsh.) Borkh.) would provide the potential for reintroducing this species into forests it historically dominated. However, we lack a silvicultural understanding of the environmental conditions most favorable to the growth and survival of American chestnut relative to species with which it historically co-existed. We examined effects of shelterwoods with variable residual densities on the growth and physiology of blight-tolerant chestnut seedlings relative to sugar maple (Acer saccharum Marsh.), and several oak (Quercus spp.) and hickory (Carya spp.) species across a broad range of light availabilities (gap light index; GLI; of 4–50%). To assess the hypothesis that American chestnuts are more physiologically plastic and responsive to light than oaks and hickories, we measured seedling relative diameter and height growth rates and photosynthetic light-response curves across a GLI gradient. The diameter and height growth of chestnut increased with GLI, while oaks and hickories did not. All species varied aspects of their photosynthetic physiology across the GLI gradient in an approximately equivalent manner; the dark respiration rate and light compensation point increased equivalently across species in response to increases in light availability. A multivariate analysis identified three major axes of variation across ten measured traits, largely reflecting differences in species averages and phenotypic plasticity across the GLI gradient. American chestnut seedlings were spread across these multivariate dimensions more than other species, consistent with the hypothesis of higher phenotypic plasticity in this focal species. These results are consistent with the hypothesis of high light plasticity in American chestnut and suggest that low residual shelterwood densities may better promote the establishment of underplanted chestnut seedlings relative to associated tree species provided it does not result in detrimental increases in the productivity of competing understory species.

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Forest Ecology and Management