New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2007) 31(1): 39- 46

Kauri trees (Agathis australis) affect nutrient, water and light availability for their seedlings

Research Article
Eric Verkaik *
Wim. G. Braakhekke  
  1. Nature Conservation and Plant Ecology Group, Wageningen University, PO Box 47, 6700 AA Wageningen, The Netherlands
*  Corresponding author

Plants can change the soil that they grow on, for example by producing litter. If litter characteristics are such that their effect on the soil increases a plant's fitness, a positive feedback can develop between the plant and the soil. Several studies indicate that New Zealand kauri trees (Agathis australis) lower the availability of nutrients in the soil beneath their crown. Low nutrient availability would be positive for the survival of kauri seedlings as they are known to use nutrients more efficiently than angiosperm species. We tested the hypotheses that nutrient availability is lower and light availability is higher beneath kauri trees than beneath the surrounding angiosperm vegetation. We determined the availability of nutrients (using leaf nutrient concentrations as a proxy), soil moisture, and light in both situations. As a reference we did the same measurements in tea tree vegetation (Leptospermum scoparium and Kunzea ericoides) where kauri seedlings were abundant. The availability of nitrogen, phosphorus and calcium was lower under kauri than in the surrounding vegetation. Further, in a dry period the availability of water in the organic layer surrounding the kauri trunk was lower than in the mineral soil further away from the kauri trunk. We suggest that periodic drought explains why the density of kauri seedlings under mature kauri trees is less than in tea tree vegetation. Kauri seedlings are more tolerant of drought and low nutrient availability than other tree seedlings and we conclude that the conditions under mature kauri give kauri seedlings an advantage over seedlings of other tree species. The low nutrient availability under mature kauri trees supports the idea of a positive soil–plant feedback driven by poor decomposability of kauri litter.