Question: Do severe winter flood events lift the nutrient limitation of biomass production in a river floodplain? How does this affect plant species richness? How long do the effects last?
Location: Floodplain grassland on calcareous sandy loam near river Rhine in The Netherlands.
Methods: Plots were fertilised with four treatments (control, N, P, N P) for 21 years; plant species composition, vegetation biomass and tissue nutrient concentrations were determined every year between 1985 and 2005.
Results: Fertilisation with N generally increased biomass production and reduced species richness, but these effects varied over time. During the first four years of the experiment, biomass production appeared to be co-limited by N and P, while N fertilisation dramatically reduced plant species richness; these effects became weaker subsequently. Following two extreme winter floods in 1993–94 and 1994–95 and a drought in spring 1996, the effects of fertilisation disappeared between 1998 and 2001 and then appeared again. Flooding caused an overall reduction in species richness (from c. 24 to 15 species m−2) and an increase in biomass production, which were only partly reversed after ten years.
Conclusions: Long time series are necessary to understand vegetation dynamics and nutrient limitation in riverfloodplains, since they are influenced by occasional flood and drought events, whose effects may persist for more than ten years. A future increase in flooding frequency might be detrimental to species richness in floodplain grasslands.
Nomenclature: van der Meijden (1996).