The clonal shrub Cornus drummondii is rapidly displacing mesic grassland in the central U.S. due to fire suppression and changes in land use. Once established, this shrub is not readily eliminated by the return of frequent fire, leading to significant and perhaps irreversible shifts in tallgrass prairie structure and function. We assessed the impacts of C. drummondii encroachment on herbaceous aboveground net primary production (ANPP) and plant community structure in tallgrass prairie and the role this species plays in the conversion of grassland ecosystems to shrub/woodlands. We also removed established C. drummondii clones to assess the potential of the grassland ecosystem to recover after shrub dominance. Aboveground net primary production, vegetative cover and species richness and diversity (exclusive of C. drummondii) were significantly reduced beneath shrub islands relative to open grassland, with reductions in ANPP and richness of up to 94 and 45%, respectively. Forbs were the dominant growth form in the C. drummondii understory, and 10 species primarily associated with woodland habitats occurred only within shrub islands. Upon removal of C. drummondii, ANPP, richness and diversity recovered to grassland values within 2 y; however, forbs remained the dominant growth form, comprising 73% of total cover. These results indicate that C. drummondii exerts strong control over the structure and function of unburned mesic grassland ecosystems and that this shrub may be key in the conversion of grasslands to woodlands. Removal of C. drummondii resulted in some aspects of recovery, but the return of graminoid dominance was not attained after 2 y. This represents a legacy effect of C. drummondii of unknown duration. Prevention of woody species encroachment through frequent burning is a preferred management option for this ecosystem.
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Vol. 153 • No. 2