Fire intensity effects on seed germination of native and invasive Eastern deciduous forest understory plants.
Low-intensity fires were important for maintaining the structure of Eastern deciduous forests (EDFs) for thousands of years before European settlement of North America, though fire suppression became a standard management practice in the 1930s. More recently, prescribed fires have been reintroduced to EDF habitats to aid in the restoration of native plant diversity, but invasions of non-native species such as Microstegium vimineum (Japanese stiltgrass) may increase prescribed fire intensity and suppress colonization of native species. As fire becomes a more common management tool in these habitats, it is vital to predict fire temperature effects on the native and non-native species present in the system. In this study, we found that prescribed fires in areas invaded by Microstegium can be 250-300°C hotter than fires in nearby native-dominated areas. We then compared the effects of fire on germination rates of six native and three non-native EDF understory species representing the range of functional groups common in this habitat. We manipulated both fire intensity (temperature and length of exposure) and type of fire effect (direct flame and indirect furnace heat) to generate germination curves and make predictions about potential prescribed fire effects on populations of these species. There were very different responses among species to both direct (flame) and indirect (furnace) heating. Germination of three native species, Lycopus americana (American water horehound), Verbesina alternifolia (wingstem), and Vernonia gigantea (tall ironweed), showed signs of being stimulated by heating at low temperatures, while germination of all non-native species (M. vimineum, Elaeagnus umbellata, and Schedonorus phoenix) were inhibited at these lower intensities. High fire intensity (temperatures above 300°C) effectively killed most species, though one native species, Senna hebacarpa (American senna) and one non-native species, E. umbellata (autumn olive), were capable of tolerating 500°C temperatures. We conclude that high-intensity prescribed fires in habitats invaded by Microstegium may reduce seed germination of some non-native species, but may also inhibit the regeneration of native understory species.