The influence of canopy trees and shrubs on understorey plants is complex and context-dependent. Canopy plants can exert positive, negative or neutral effects on production, composition and diversity of understorey plant communities, depending on local environmental conditions and position in the landscape. We studied the influence of Prosopis velutina (mesquite) on soil moisture and nitrogen availability, and understorey vegetation along a topographic gradient in the Sonoran Desert. We found significant increases in both soil moisture and N along the gradient from desert to riparian zone. In addition, P. velutina canopies had positive effects, relative to open areas, on soil moisture in the desert, and soil N in both desert and intermediate terrace. Biomass of understorey vegetation was highest and species richness was lowest in the riparian zone. Canopies had a positive effect on biomass in both desert and terrace, and a negative effect on species richness in the terrace. The effect of the canopy depended on landscape position, with desert canopies more strongly influencing soil moisture and biomass and terrace canopies more strongly influencing soil N and species richness. Individual species distributions suggested interspecific variation in response to water- vs. N-availability; they strongly influence species composition at both patch and landscape position levels.
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