Facilitation by nurse plants

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Some plants benefit from closely associated neighbors (Ivetić and Devetaković 2016[1], Tab. 1), a phenomenon known as facilitation (Padilla and Pugnaire 2006[2]). Nurse plants have been mainly used to restore vegetation in arid and sub-arid zones in recent years (Ren et al. 2008[3]).

Table 1. Reported positive effects of nurse plants to seedlings survival and growth.

Effect Source
Protect seedlings from frost. Stilinović 1991[4]; LePage and Coates 1994[5]
Reduce soil water evaporation, lower soil and air temperature, and decrease the amount of radiation reaching the plants by shading. Padilla and Pugnaire 2006[2]; Endo et al. 2008[6]
Improve the availability of water through the process known as “hydraulic lift”. Padilla and Pugnaire 2006[2]
Improve nutrient availability by nitrogen transfer between legumes and non-leguminous plants. Franco and Nobel 1989[7]; Padilla and Pugnaire 2006[2]; Rodríguez-Echeverría et al. 2016[8]
Promote the development of differentiated soil microbial communities. Duponnois et al. 2011[9]; Rodríguez-Echeverría et al. 2016[8]
Promote survival and growth by mycorrhization. Bai et al. 2009[10]; Bauman et al. 2012[11]
Soil stabilization. Endo et al. 2008[6]; Rodríguez-Echeverría et al. 2016[8]

In reforestation of Mediterranean mountains, Pinus sylvestris and P. nigra survival was remarkably higher and growth unaffected when planted under individuals of the shrub Salvia lavandulifolia Vahl (Castro et al. 2002[12]). Three years after planting, association between Cupressus atlantica Gaussen and Lavandula stoechas L. lead to a higher growth of C. atlantica and better soil microbial characteristics compared to the control treatment (Duponnois et al. 2011[9]). Gómez-Aparicio et al. (2004)[13] conducted a meta-analysis with seedling survival and growth data for the first year after planting at experimental reforestations with more than 18,000 seedlings of 11 woody species planted under 16 different nurse shrubs throughout a broad geographical area in southeast Spain. They concluded that facilitative effect was consistent in all environmental situations explored; but with differences in the magnitude of the interaction, depending on the seedling species planted as well as the nurse shrub species involved. Additionally, they found that nurse shrubs had a stronger facilitative effect on seedling survival and growth at low altitudes and sunny, drier slopes than at high altitudes or shady, wetter slopes. At dry sites with full sunlight, creating shadow by nurse plants can promote survival but reduce photosynthetic rate. Although shade enhances the probability of Pinus pinea survival, carbon assimilation reaches maximum values on more open sites (Calama et al. 2015[14]).


  1. Ivetić V, Devetaković J (2016) Reforestation challenges in Southeast Europe facing climate change. Reforesta 1: 178-220. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.21750/REFOR.1.10.10
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Padilla FM, Pugnaire FI (2006) The role of nurse plants in the restoration of degraded environments. Front Ecol Environ 4(4): 196–202.
  3. Ren H, Yang L, Liu N (2008) Nurse plant theory and its application in ecological restoration in lower subtropics of China. Prog Nat Sci 18: 137-142. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pnsc.2007.07.008
  4. Stilinović S (1991) Afforestation. Naučna knjiga, Belgrade. University book. 274 p. [In Serbian]
  5. LePage P, Dave CK (1994) Growth of planted lodgepole pine and hybrid spruce following chemical and manual vegetation control on a frost-prone site. Can J Forest Res 24: 208-216. doi:10.1139/x94-031.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Endo M, Yamamura Y, Tanaka A, Nakano T, Yasuda T (2008) Nurse-plant effects of a dwarf shrub on the establishment of tree seedlings in a volcanic desert on Mt. Fuji, Central Japan. Arc Antarct Alp Res 40: 335–342. doi:10.1657/1523-0430(07-013)[ENDO]2.0.CO;2.
  7. Franco AC, Nobel PS (1989) Effect of nurse plants on the microhabitat and growth of cacti. J Ecol 77: 870-886.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Rodríguez-Echeverría S, Lozano YM, Bardgett RD (2016) Influence of soil microbiota in nurse plant systems. Funct Ecol 30: 30–40. doi:10.1111/1365-2435.12594
  9. 9.0 9.1 Duponnois R, Ouahmane L, Kane A, Thioulouse J, Hafidi M, Boumezzough A, Prin Y, Baudoin E, Galiana A, Dreyfus B (2011) Nurse shrubs increased the early growth of cupressus seedlings by enhancing belowground mutualism and soil microbial activity. Soil Biol Biochem 43: 2160-2168. doi:10.1016/j.soilbio.2011.06.020.
  10. Bai S-L, Li G-L, Liu Y, Dumroese RK, Lv R-H (2009) Ostryopsis davidiana seedlings inoculated with ectomycorrhizal fungi facilitate formation of mycorrhizae on Pinus tabulaeformis seedlings. Mycorrhiza 19: 425–434.
  11. Bauman JM, Keiffer CH, Hiremath S (2012) Facilitation of American chestnut (Castanea dentata) seedling establishment by Pinus virginiana in mine reclamation. International Journal of Ecology 2012: 1-12.
  12. Castro J, Zamora R, Hódar JA, Gómez JM (2002) Use of shrubs as nurse plants: a new technique for reforestation in Mediterranean mountains. Restor Ecol 10: 297-305.
  13. Gómez-Aparicio L, Zamora R, Gómez JM, Hódar JA, Castro J, Baraza E (2004) Applying plant facilitation to forest restoration: a meta-analysis of the use of shrubs as nurse plants. Ecol Appl 14: 1128-1138. doi:10.1890/03-5084
  14. Calama R, Puértolas J, Manso R, Pardos M (2015) Defining the optimal regeneration niche for Pinus Pinea L. through physiology-based models for seedling survival and carbon assimilation. Trees 29(6): 1761–1771. doi:10.1007/s00468-015-1257-5.