Noccaea caerulescens (formerly Thlaspi caerulescens, Brassicaceae) is a model species for studying the genetics and physiology of metal hyperaccumulation and is economically valuable for phytoremediation. Its growth and survival under varying natural conditions remain relatively unstudied but such information would be essential for assessing the effectiveness and potential ecological impacts of using N. caerulescens for phytoremediation. In this study, we experimentally introduced N. caerulescens seeds and seedlings to three sites with zinc- and cadmium-contaminated mine tailings in southwestern Colorado. We observed its germination, growth, and survival at three distances from the tailings (‘locations’) and with and without native vegetation removal to assess its establishment potential. Overall plant growth was slow and plants did not reach reproductive stage after three growing seasons, but plant performance did vary by site and location. High soil copper concentrations in the tailings at one site greatly reduced plant survival, whereas high plant-available zinc in the tailings increased survival and growth at the other two sites. Presence of native vegetation had a facilitative effect on early growth and survival of germinated seedlings. Our results suggest N. caerulescens is unlikely to become invasive if introduced to similar high elevation sites for phytoremediation. However, our finding that plants can survive on low-metal soils, combined with the species' high reproductive potential, warrants further research to examine its ability to establish at other field sites.
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