Ecology and niche characterization of the invasive ornamental grass Miscanthus sinensis
Dougherty, Ryan Fitzgerald
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The recent trend in bioenergy feedstock development focuses on the use of large-statured perennial grasses that pose a relatively high risk of becoming invasive species due to the similarity in desirable agronomic traits with those of many of our worst invaders. Thus, it would be prudent to evaluate the potential ecological benefits and consequences of widespread cultivation of potentially invasive species. Miscanthus sinensis and its sterile daughter species, Miscanthus × giganteus, are two prominent bioenergy feedstock candidates due to their low input requirements and significant biomass production in a broad range of growing conditions. Despite being an extremely popular ornamental grass, and naturalizing in over half of US states, little is actually known about the biology, ecology and niche requirements of M. sinensis. Thus, the objective of our research is to characterize extant M. sinensis populations, and evaluate the niche requirements, especially in terms of the commonly limiting resources of light and soil moisture. In order to better assess the risk of M. sinensis (and subsequently M. × giganteus) cultivation, we surveyed 18 naturalized populations across the east coast to characterize habitat preferences, population structure, and plant performance across a latitudinal gradient. We found the vast majority of M. sinensis populations occurred in areas of high and low resource availability (e.g. soil nutrients and light) along roadsides and forest edges, with outlier individuals found in forest understories. We conducted a greenhouse study to compare shade and soil moisture tolerance among common ornamental cultivars and naturalized populations, where we found enhanced plant growth and vigor in naturalized biotypes compared to ornamentals across varying levels of shade. We also found that both naturalized and ornamental biotypes were not significantly affected by soil moisture stress, and thus express significant drought tolerance. Finally, we investigated the temperature and moisture requirements of M. sinensis seeds and determined a base temperature of approximately 8"C, as well as variable moisture and time to germination requirements between varieties and seed sources. These basic ecological studies will help refine and support future evaluations and weed risk assessments of both Miscanthus sinensis and M. × giganteus, which is critical in prevention of major ecological invasions.
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