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ARS Home » Pacific West Area » Burns, Oregon » Range and Meadow Forage Management Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #377669

Research Project: A Systems Approach to Restoring Invaded Sagebrush Steppe

Location: Range and Meadow Forage Management Research

Title: An assessment of seed head and flag leaf contributions to reproductive effort in sagebrush steppe bunchgrasses

item Hamerlynck, Erik
item O'Connor, Rory

Submitted to: Journal of Arid Environments
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 1/7/2021
Publication Date: 1/14/2021
Citation: Hamerlynck, E.P., O'Connor, R.C. 2021. An assessment of seed head and flag leaf contributions to reproductive effort in sagebrush steppe bunchgrasses. Journal of Arid Environments. 187. Article 104442.

Interpretive Summary: In crops like wheat and barley, seed filling is supported by mainly by photosynthesis in the flag leaf and somewhat from within the seed head itself, but how these two structures contribute to seed filling in rangeland perennial grasses is almost totally unknown. Such information is critical in understanding the basic and applied ecology of rangeland bunchgrasses, as these almost exclusively establish from seed. This study showed that seed head photosynthesis was important in both a native grass, squirreltail, and especially in a widely planted exotic grass, crested wheatgrass. Contributions from the flag leaf were about the same as those from the seed head in squirreltail, but our results indicated in crested wheatgrass, the flag leaf competes for resources with the developing seeds. We think this is an adaptation in crested wheatgrass to the intense and highly varied grazing regimes it inhabited before its introduction into North American rangelands. Selecting for native plant materials with similar reproductive photosynthetic styles like crested wheatgrass may help improve restoration of native plants into degraded sagebrush steppe rangelands.

Technical Abstract: North American sagebrush-steppe bunchgrasses primarily establish from seed; however, the importance of parental plant carbon from flag leaves or within the seed head itself to reproduction in perennial bunchgrasses is unknown. To address this, we experimentally removed flag leaves and shaded seed heads to assess their importance to reproduction in the exotic bunchgrass crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum), which has high seed head photosynthetic capacity and readily establishes from seed, and the native grass, squirreltail (Elymus elymoides), which has lower seed head photosysnthetic capacity and does not establish as readily from seed. We hypothesized that inflorescence shading would have a greater negative impact on crested wheatgrass reproduction than in squirreltail. In crested wheatgrass, shading did not affect total propagule production but did reduce both total filled seeds and filled seed specific mass (dry mass per unit area). Flag leaf removal stimulated seed filling and increased seed specific mass, especially in unshaded seed heads, suggesting flag leaves are competitive carbon sinks in crested wheatgrass. In contrast, flag leaf removal and shading in squirreltail resulted in similar reductions in total propagules, fewer filled seed produced and lower specific seed mass, indicating similar contributions to reproductive effort by both structures. These results indicate seed head photosynthetic activity is an adaptive reproductive feature in both grasses, but the contrasting effects of flag leaf removal may reflect long-term adaptive responses to grazing pressures that differed in crested wheatgrass's native range compared to those in North American sagebrush steppe.