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Research article2013Peer reviewed

Does background nitrogen deposition affect the response of boreal vegetation to fertilization?

Hedwall, Per-Ola; Nordin, Annika; Strengbom, Joachim; Brunet, Jörg; Olsson, Bengt


Forest floor vegetation is an important component of forest biodiversity, and numerous studies have shown that N input alters the vegetation. In some cases, however, the effects of experimental N addition have been small or absent. Two alternative hypotheses have been suggested: (a) competition from the tree layer confounds the response to N, or (b) N response in areas with high background deposition is limited by N saturation. Neither of these hypotheses has so far been explicitly tested. Here, we compile data on forest floor vegetation from N addition experiments, in which the forest had been clear-cut, along an N deposition gradient ranging from 4 to 16 kg ha-1 year-1 in Sweden. We analyzed the effects of N addition and its interaction with N deposition on common species and thereby tested the second hypothesis in an environment without the confounding effects of the tree layer. The results show that the effects of the experimental N addition are significantly influenced by background N deposition: the N addition effects are smaller in areas with high N deposition than in areas with low N deposition, despite the fact that the highest N deposition in this study can be considered moderate from an international perspective. The results are important when assessing the reliability of results from N addition experiments on forest floor vegetation in areas with moderate to high background N deposition. We conclude that the interacting effects of N addition and N deposition need to be included when assessing long-term N sensitivity of plant communities.


Forest understory; Nitrogen fertilization; Nitrogen deposition gradient; Plant species composition; Plant species abundance

Published in

2013, Volume: 173, number: 2, pages: 615-624