Aspects of the invasion of southern tall grassveld by Aristida junciformis subsp. junciformis Trin. et Rupr.
Van Zyl, Douglas Dirk.
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Aristida junciformis subsp. junciformis Trin. et Rupr. is an indigenous, densely tufted, evergreen perennial grass associated with the degeneration of grasslands over large areas of South Africa. More than two hundred thousand square kilometres of veld, c. 17% of the total land area of South Africa, contains A. junciformis. The aim of this study was to improve our understanding of the mechanisms by which this species invades and dominates grassland, specifically in this study, Southern Tall Grassveld. Aristida junciformis also has a low nutritional value resulting in a very low grazing value. The unpalatability of the plant is due to the high tensile strength of the leaves, whose hard, fibrous laminas are very difficult for a grazing animal to crop once their length attains 30 cm or more. This species lack of response to conventional grazing practices has often resulted in a grassland in which the carrying capacity has diminished to such an extent as to be virtually useless for grazing in a relatively short time. The extent of encroachment of veld by A. junciformis appears dependant on the frequency of disturbance and rest afforded to the veld. Annual burning and mowing maintained the species composition of A. junciformis at levels <10% whilst protection from fire, burning or grazing allows this species to dominate the herbaceous layer at levels approaching 90%. Aristida junciformis does not become moribund and is unlikely to die if left undefoliated. As the abundance of A. junciformis increases, veld deterioration gradually accelerates through increased selective grazing on remaining palatable species. Competition from adult A. junciformis plants increases the mortality of seedlings and constrains growth of surviving seedlings. Tiller production of Aristida junciformis seedlings declined from an average of 5.2 tillers per seedling in a no competition situation to 2.2 tillers per seedling when subjected to full competition. Tiller production of T. triandra seedlings decreased from 9.6 tillers per seedling free from competition to 3.3 tillers per seedling subject to full competition for resources. Once these seedlings have become adult plants they are avoided by grazing animals and grazing pressure on the remaining palatable species consequently increases. This allows the A. junciformis plants to increase their size and density in the sward. Once this density is sufficiently high, grass seedlings of either A. junciformis or more desirable grass species such as T. triandra are unable to establish, eventually resulting in a monospecific stand of A. junciformis if left undisturbed. Large amounts of caryopses are produced by A. junciformis - up to a 19 000 caryopses from a large mature plant (c. 38 000 caryopses/m²). Of these c. 40% is likely to be infertile but the remaining c. 60% viable caryopses are dispersed in a typically leptokurtic distribution, the number of caryopses dispersed rapidly declining within a 10 metre radius. A large proportion of the caryopses was trapped in surrounding foliage but in open swards caryopses had greater opportunity to be blown further distances than in a closed sward. The density of A. junciformis caryopses on the soil surface was positively correlated with the density of flowering adult plants in the area and varied from 400 caryopses/m² (density of parent plants c. 0.6 plants/m²) in less effected areas to 11000 caryopses/m² (density of adult plants c. 6 plants/m²) in severely encroached areas. The primary function of the three awns appears to be orientating the caryopsis correctly for in its descent from the parent plant to expedite germination. Caryopses orientated vertically with the awns uppermost exhibited the highest and most rapid germination (67%) compared to caryopses lying horizontally (35%) whilst only 1% of inverted caryopses germinated. Caryopses trapped in litter and effectively held off the soil surface failed to germinate. Removal of the glumes from A junciformis seed greatly enhanced the rate and overall germination of the seed except for inverted seed of which <1% germinated. The highest numbers of A. junciformis seedlings (32 seedlings/m²) were found in those areas with the highest density of caryopses on the soil surface. Despite the large amounts of caryopses produced, dispersed and landing in apparently suitable micro-sites for germination, comparatively few A. junciformis seedlings (n=992) were found and overall germination ranged between 1 % and 4% of the initial caryopses density on the soil surface. Seedling survival through winter was low with only 13% surviving to the following spring. The basal areas of A. junciformis increased overall by 66% whilst that of other grass species increased overall by only 3% in the time monitored. These results suggest that the primary method of encroachment of A. junciformis in the grass sward appears to be through vegetative expansion and not seedling recruitment. Frequent defoliation of the sward and avoidance of overgrazing to enhance the competitive abilities of palatable species and provide as high a fuel load as possible appear to be the most economically and logistically feasible ways to remove or at least inhibit A. junciformis veld encroachment at present.
- Masters Degrees (Botany)