In arid zones dominant woody plants are capable of causing changes in microclimate and soil properties likely to affect species composition, as well as the establishment and spatial distribution of plant species. In North American and European deserts species richness appears to be higher under the canopy of shrubs and trees, in contrast with Chilean deserts where it seems to be lower. Since Prosopis flexuosa (Fabaceae, Mimosoideae) is the most conspicuous tree in the central Monte desert, Argentina, we analysed the effect of this species on the composition and abundance of the shrub and herbaceous layers and on soil properties. We considered two mesohabitats: ‘under P. flexuosa canopy’ and ‘intercanopy areas’. In addition, we analysed the differences between two microhabitats under canopies: ‘northern part of the canopy’ and ‘southern part of the canopy’. Results indicate that species composition and soil properties are affected by both mesohabitats and microhabitats. We found a higher number of shrubs under canopies, whereas that of grasses and perennial forbs increased in intercanopy areas. Concentrations of organic matter, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, factors limiting biological productivity in Monte desert soils, were significantly higher under than outside P. flexuosa canopies. Electrical conductivity and concentrations of Na , Ca , Mg were higher in the northern than in the southern microhabitats. No differences in species richness, evenness or diversity were found between mesohabitats or between microhabitats. We conclude that P. flexuosa modifies the spatial pattern of plant species in the shrub and herbaceous layers and the chemical conditions of the soil, generating spatial heterogeneity on different scales.
Abbreviations: EC = Electrical conductivity; SAR = Sodium absorption ratio.